When it comes to the study of the end-times, the natural go-to book in the Bible is Revelation. It is here that Christians come to study the tribulation, the return of Jesus, and other related subjects. Included with these is none other than the rapture.
There are a few different arguments made from the book of Revelation concerning the rapture. In this article, I will focus on an argument that is very important for those who follow a pre-tribulation rapture: the alleged absence of the church in chapters 4-18. The argument goes like this: The Greek word for “church” (ekklesia) is used twenty times in Revelation. Nineteen of these are in the first three chapters. However, beginning with chapter 4 the word disappears. It does not reappear until chapter 22 in the new heavens and new earth. However, we know from other passages (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 for example) that the church is present with Christ at his second coming (chapter 19 in Revelation).
The point is that since the church is absent between chapters 3 and 19 then the church must be in heaven during chapters 4-18 (the tribulation). The fact that the church appears and disappears in this fashion is, according to Mark Hitchcock, a well-known pre-tribber, “convincing evidence that the church will not be present on earth during the Tribulation and the outpouring of God’s wrath.” He continues, “[t]his absence is arresting and unexplainable if the church continues on earth through any part of the Tribulation.”
Some believe that the rapture is present in Revelation 4:1 since John is told to come up to heaven (although not all pre-tribbers agree with this assessment). To add to this argument are the twenty-four elders that appear in heaven throughout Revelation. There are many different views concerning exactly who these elders are including angels, church age believers, both OT and NT saints, or even a combination of these. Many pre-tribbers tend to believe that these elders represent the church only.
Does this argument hold up? Does the absence of the church on earth in Revelation 4-18 and the presence of the elders in heaven prove a pre-tribulation rapture? Let’s take a look.
Is the church absent from Revelation 4-18?
The first problem with this view is that most of it is an argument from silence. This does not automatically prove it is wrong, but it should raise some red flags since we always fill that silence with what we already believe.
Secondly, just because the word “church” is never used in chapters 4-18 means little to nothing since John never refers to any group in heaven as the church either. It is also important to note that ekklesia does not appear in many other books in Scripture (“Mark, Luke, John, 2 Timothy, Titus, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, or Jude, and not until chapter 16 of Romans”). Does this mean that the church did not exist at the time those writings were composed? Of course not.
It is also interesting to note that ekklesia does not appear in Revelation 19-21 as well. It does not make its next appearance (after chapter 3) until 22:16. I agree that the context in chapters 19-21 demand that the church is present. There are two important points to make here. First, there are passages that speak about people dying in the Lord and following the testimony of Jesus. “In 6:9; 12:17; 14:12; 20:4, tribulational saints are designated as those who keep the commandments of God and the testimony, or faith, of Jesus.” Is this not the church, that is, Christians?
There is a common belief among pre-tribbers that the saints that pop up in Revelation 4-18 are “Tribulation saints.” Hitchcock says, “The mention of saints in Revelation 4-18 indicates that there will be believers on earth during the Tribulation, but it doesn’t prove conclusively that they are church-age believers. We must look at the context to discern which group of saints is in view.”
I disagree strongly. Christians are Christians, regardless if they live before or during the Tribulation. They are believers in Jesus Christ either way. The only way that someone can divide them into “church-age” and “tribulational” saints is if they already accept a pre-tribulation rapture. Thus, it is not proof of a pre-trib rapture.
The second point is that if the word ekklesia is so important then why is it not used in chapters 19-21? These chapters cover the second coming of Christ, the fall of Satan, and give us a glimpse of such things as Judgment Day and the New Heavens and New Earth. If ekklesia is the best way to pinpoint the church in this era then why not use the word? I’m not saying that the church is absent from these chapters. I’m just saying that the Bible does not have to use one particular word to get its point across. It can use other words (like the other books mentioned above that do not use ekklesia as well).
Now let’s take a look at the elders. As I mentioned above, they are seen as anything from angels, church-age believers or even all saints from all periods. Anyone who has taken the time to study the issue will know that the meaning of the elders can be a difficult one. The point I want to make about them is that if they are Christians, do they prove that the church has been raptured? Personally, I say no. Why? First, if they are the church then why isn’t the word ekklesia used for them. If the word is so important for pre-tribbers that it proves that the church is not on earth, then wouldn’t that mean, following their logic, that the church is not in heaven either? Gundry notes, “Even were it possible to prove that the elders represent the Church, it does not of necessity follow that the entire Church has arrived in heaven.”
I know there are many Christians who will strongly disagree with me, but I simply do not see how the absence of the word ekklesia from Revelation 4-18 proves that the Church is not on earth during that time. As I mentioned in the article: 1) this would mean that Christians are not in heaven during the same period since the word is not used for them either; 2) the church must not have existed during the New Testament period since ekklesia is not used in some of the other New Testament books. Please understand, I do not believe that this proves a pre-tribulational rapture wrong. I simply do not think it is good, definitive evidence for it. Pre-tribbers need to quit using it.
What do you think? Do you agree or disagree? Leave a comment below or on our Facebook page.
 Mark Hitchcock. The End (Carol Stream: Tyndale, 2012). 146. According to pre-tribbers this shows that the church was already in heaven “for some time since she has ‘prepared herself’ (Revelation 19:7). See also, John Walvoord. The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Chicago: Moody, 1989). 103; Tim Lahaye. Revelation Revealed (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999). 100-101; Robert Gromacki. “Where is ‘the Church’ in Revelation 4-19?” 2 (PDF version). http://pre-trib.org/articles/view/where-is-church-in-revelation-4-19.
 David Hocking. “The Rapture in Revelation.” 5 (PDF version). http://pre-trib.org/articles/view/rapture-in-revelation; Lahaye, 100. Those who disagree include Robert Gromacki, 6; Walvoord, 103.
 (4:4, 10; 5:5-6, 8, 11, 14; 7:11, 13; 11:16; 14:3; 19:4)
 Robert Mounce. The Book of Revelation Revised (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997). 121-122. Grant Osbourne. Revelation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002). 229.
 Lahaye, 120. William Hendriken. More Than Conquerors (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1967). 85.
 G.K. Beale. The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999). 322-326.
 Hitchcock, 147-148; Walvoord, 106-107; Gromacki, 4-5; Hocking, 5-6.
 Douglas Moo. “A Case for the Posttribulation Rapture” in Three Views of the Rapture. 2nd Ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010). 230; Robert Gundry. The Church and the Tribulation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1973). 78; Beale, 118 fn. 56.
 Gundry, 78. Beale, 118 fn. 56
 Gundry, 79-80.
 Hitchcock, 146-147. Also see Walvoord, 103.
 Gundry, 71.