Among those Christian denominations that take a literal view of end-times prophecy, it is generally agreed upon that the end times will include the rapture of the church, a seven-year period of tribulation, and the second coming of Christ, when He will establish His kingdom on earth. Some liturgical denominations (like Lutherans and Reformed) and Christian-like religions (like Roman and Orthodox Catholicism) identify the rapture with a more general resurrection before judgment. But even among stricter dispensationalists, there is disagreement as to when the rapture will take place in relation to the tribulation.
Is pretribulationism right? Will the church be raptured before the tribulation?
The discussion has practical implications because the answer will determine if Christians of the church age will experience any of the tribulation. Pretribulationism says no — the church will be raptured before the tribulation, although more will be saved during those seven years. Midtribulationism and pre-wrath teach that the church will go through part of the tribulation, but be taken up before God sends down His judgment on the earth. Postribulationists teach that the rapture will come at or near the end of the tribulation. Often, postribulationists also claim that the tribulation itself is somewhat symbolic.
Pretribulational rapture is probably the most popular viewpoint among Protestant churches, not least because it's the most appealing. Pretribulationism is the teaching that at some point before the tribulation, Jesus will come to the sky, but not touch the earth. His followers, both living and dead, will meet with Him in the air (1 Thessalonians 4:17) and be taken from earth. Some time after this event, the seven-year tribulation will begin. At the end of the tribulation, Jesus will return to earth — the second coming — destroy the armies of the Antichrist, and reign as King during the millennial kingdom. Thus the believers of the church age will not experience any of the tribulation. However, there will still be many people who come to a saving relationship with Christ after the rapture; these people are known as tribulation saints.
Placing the rapture before the tribulation matches many Scripture passages, particularly those referring to the time of God's wrath. In 1 Thessalonians 1:10, Paul exhorts the church in Thessalonica to await "Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come." First Thessalonians 4:13-18 describes the rapture itself; the next chapter explains no one knows when the rapture will occur, so we must remain ready at all times. But we do know it is coming, because "God has not destined us for wrath" (1 Thessalonians 5:9). Revelation 3:10 also promises deliverance from "the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth."
It is possible these passages are misinterpreted, however. It is possible that "God's wrath" only encompasses the last half of the tribulation and the rapture will occur at the mid-point. But it is telling that in the prophecies of Revelation, the term "church" is completely absent from the description of the tribulation. Instead, it is Israel that is to be purified and restored. It is more likely the church is not mentioned because there is no church during the tribulation.
This would align with Daniel's prophecy of the seventy weeks. For sixty-nine weeks of years, between the year King Artaxerxes allowed the Jews to return to their homeland and the year Jesus was crucified, God prepared the world for the church age. When the time of the Gentiles (Luke 21:24; Romans 11:25) is complete, the seventieth week will begin — the tribulation.
But this is a relatively new interpretation. It was only in the early 1800s that the rapture of the church was contemplated to be a separate event from Jesus' second coming. The many passages that seem to describe both distinguish the events only vaguely. The rapture is to come like a thief in the night — with no prior warning and no prerequisites. Christ's second coming heralds the Battle of Armageddon, which cannot occur until sacrifices are reinstated in Jerusalem and the tribulation is at an end.
Unfortunately, a pretribulational view of the rapture opens itself up to false prophets who claim to be able to identify when the rapture will occur. In fact, Wikipedia lists 650 predictions of the biblical and secular end of the world, the first occurring in AD 66. As of this writing, the most active is the prophecy surrounding the four "Blood Moons." This despite the fact that Jesus was very clear that the date of the rapture is both imminent (nothing, not even the establishment of Israel, must occur before hand; 1 Corinthians 15:50-54) and unknown (Matthew 24:36).
The specifics of the end times are vague, apparently purposefully so (Daniel 12:8-9), and Bible scholars and denominations disagree as to the specifics. A straight-forward reading of the Bible indicates that the rapture will occur before the tribulation begins. Until then, believers should continue to reach the lost world for Christ while we're still here.
What is going to happen in the end times?
What is the rapture and when will it occur?
Is the end times rapture partial? What is the partial rapture belief?
After the rapture, will there be a second chance for salvation?
What is the end times tribulation?
Truth about the End Times