Among the various issues that separate believers with regard to the timing of the rapture and other eschatological matters is the question of where the church appears in the book of Revelation. Due to the highly symbolic nature of the book, the answer to this question is not immediately evident, and much disagreement has arisen concerning it.
In this series of articles, I will focus on the contention between two prophecy schools: pretribulationism and posttribulationism—where this issue is concerned. I will be defending the posttribulationist viewpoint against arguments put forth by pretribulationist author Dr. Robert Gromacki.
The Case of the Missing Church
In an article for the Pre-Trib Research Center, Gromacki writes:
The word “church” or “churches,” so prominent in chapters 1-3 do not appear again in the book until the last chapter (22:16)…there is a strange silence of the term in chapters 4-19. That fact is especially noteworthy when you contrast that absence with its frequent presence in the first three chapters. One good reason for this phenomenon is the absence of the true church and true evangelical churches in the seven years preceding the second coming. The true believers of the church have gone into the presence of Jesus Christ before the onset of the seven-year period. The church is not mentioned during the seal, trumpet, and bowl judgments because the church is not here during the outpouring of these judgments.
In my experience, this is usually the first point pretribulationists will make while laying out their case with regard to the church in Revelation. As Gromacki says, if the church is on earth during the events of chapters 4-19, why is it not mentioned as being on earth?
In response, I would say that I believe this argument really boils down to a type of theological confirmation bias: an exercise in interpreting scripture in such a way as to confirm what the theologian already believes to be true. Gromacki demonstrates this here in three ways:
A Strange Silence?
First, note the use of his terminology. He points out that the words “church” and “churches” are “prominent” in Revelation chapters 1-3, and goes on to contrast this prominence with a “strange silence” in chapters 4-19. He then refers to this comparison/contrast he has set up as a “phenomenon.” In this way, he leads the reader to believe that there is a mystery here, one that strongly suggests that a pre-tribulation rapture must have removed the church from the earth before the events of chapters 4-19.
In response, I would argue that it is difficult to see why there is any mystery here at all.
We must remember that Revelation is a letter that was written “to the seven churches that are in Asia” (Revelation 1:4) to describe events experienced by its author, the apostle John. John begins by introducing himself, the purpose of the book, and the book’s intended audience. He tells his audience that he is writing to share his vision of the Lord, how the Lord dictated messages to each of the seven churches, and how he received a general revelation of events related to the end of the age and the second coming. He then shares the content of his vision of the Lord, conveying Christ’s individual messages to the churches as well as a general admonition to the faithful in all of the churches (those who have “ears to hear”) to heed what they have been told. Finally, the letter ends with an epilogue of sorts in which believers are once again urged to heed what they have read.
In light of these things, the prominence of the churches in chapters 1-3 (and their reference again in the closing remarks of chapter 22) should come as no surprise at all. Once again, the book is a letter written to convey the author’s experience, and it reads very naturally as such given that the intended audience is directly addressed at the beginning and in the closing, with the author’s experience comprising the middle portion of the book. This is a pattern that is repeated throughout the books of the New Testament, the bulk of which are also letters. Even today, our own letters and electronic messages to one another often follow this format. Revelation does not read uniformly because it is not structured uniformly; its approach changes between chapters 1-3 and chapters 4-21, because the content changes. The same thing then happens once again chapter 22, beginning with verse 6, where John shifts from conveying the revelation to concluding admonitions.
And while John stops using the terms “church” and “churches” after chapters 1-3, we should note that he begins using another word, one which appears twelve times in chapters 5-19. That word is “saints.” “Saints” is translated from the Greek word hagios, which Vines Expository Dictionary defines as follows:
…from the same root as hagnos (found in hazo, “to venerate”), fundamentally signifies “separated” (among the Greeks, dedicated to the gods), and hence, in Scripture in its moral and spiritual significance, separated from sin and therefore consecrated to God, sacred.
The word “saints” is repeatedly used in reference to Christians throughout the New Testament, and given its literal meaning, could be alternatively translated as “holy ones,” “sacred ones,” or even “those consecrated to God.” The “saints” of Revelation are clearly located on the earth, as the Antichrist persecutes them and kills many of them.
“It was also given to him [the Beast] to make war with the saints and to overcome them… If anyone has an ear, let him hear. If anyone is destined for captivity, to captivity he goes; if anyone kills with the sword, with the sword he must be killed. Here is the perseverance and the faith of the saints.” – Revelation 13:7, 9-10
“And he causes all, the small and the great, the rich and the poor, and the free men and the slaves, to be given a mark on their right hand or on their forehead, and he provides that no one will be able to buy or to sell, except the one who has the mark, either the name of the beast or the number of his name… Then another angel, a third one, followed them, saying with a loud voice, ‘If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger; and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb… Here is the perseverance of the saints who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus. And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write, ‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on!’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘so that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow with them.’” – Revelation 13:16-17; 14:9-10; 12-13
Now as you consider this, think back on the content of the letters to the seven churches for a moment.
With the exceptions of Smyrna and Philadelphia, Christ finds something for which to rebuke all of the churches. With some, he is quite harsh. He threatens “war” against those in Pergamum who hold to the teachings of Balaam and the Nicolaitans, and promises to kill the “children” of “Jezebel,” the false prophetess of Thyatira. He vows to come “as a thief” against those who are “dead” in Sardis, and warns that he will vomit out the “lukewarm” of Laodicea. The Lord commends others who are walking in faith and obedience in the various churches, but even these he counsels to “hold fast,” “keep my deeds,” and “be faithful.” All of the churches are promised that those who heed his word and go on to “overcome” will:
- Eat of the tree of life (3:7).
- Receive the crown of life and not be “hurt by the second death” (3:10-11).
- Eat of “the hidden manna” and receive a white stone with a new name (3:17).
- Receive authority over the nations and be given “the morning star” (3:27-28).
- Walk with Christ in white, be clothed with white garments, not be erased from the book of life, be confessed before God the Father and the holy angels (4:4-6).
- Be kept from “the hour of testing,” keep their reward, be made a pillar in the temple of God, be marked with the name of God and of the New Jerusalem (4:10-12).
- Sit down with Christ on his throne (4:21).
Thus we see that the seven churches were amalgamations of faithful and unfaithful persons, and the Lord’s counsel to the exceptional congregations in Smyrna and Philadelphia necessarily implies that even they could still potentially lose their good standing if they did not continue to be faithful. Those in the churches who “overcome” are promised many wonderful things, but those who fail to overcome are promised only that they will be judged according to their deeds (Revelation 2:23).
Who are the Overcomers?
In light of these things, is it not obvious why John would switch from using the general terms “church” and “churches” in chapters 1-3 to using a term that applies to people that are “holy,” “sacred,” and “consecrated” while describing the Great Tribulation? There are two reasons for this:
- Believers will not stand or fall in the judgment as church congregations, but rather, as individuals. The churches were mostly mixed bodies, with some in obedience to the faith and others in rebellion.
- The fates of those to whom John was writing were not yet decided. Those in rebellion might yet repent, as Jesus counseled them to do, whereas the faithful had not fully persevered, as Jesus told them they needed to do.
It is not the churches that will overcome the Beast; it is the saints—the holy ones, the sacred ones, the consecrated ones—who will overcome him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony. Individuals, not congregations, are in view in chapters 4-19. Look again at the excerpt I shared from Revelation 13: “Here is the perseverance of the saints who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus.” It is clear from Christ’s messages to the churches that not all in their midst were obeying the commandments of God or keeping the faith. In fact, some of the churches were characterized by their failure to do so.
In light of these things, why would John reference “the churches,” or even specific churches, as “overcoming” when it is clear from Christ’s words to them that many in their midst did not qualify as overcomers at that time? What impetus would the rebellious have to repent if it appeared to them that their overcoming was assured? For that matter, might not even the faithful potentially drop their guard if they thought that their overcoming was assured as well?
Pretribulationists maintain that the “saints” referenced in Revelation are a distinct class of persons who will become believers after the church is raptured to heaven. For this reason, they refer to them as “tribulation saints,” in contrast with “church saints.” In response, I’m constrained to point out here that there is no reason, apart from dispensationalist assumptions, to maintain this. Here we have a term that is consistently applied to believers throughout the New Testament and is fluidly (without any qualification) carried over into the book of Revelation, yet we’re told that it must represent another group of people entirely.
I find the explanations I’ve offered above far more compelling in accounting for the absence of the terms “church” and “churches” in Revelation chapters 4-19 than a supposed pre-tribulation rapture, as they are explanations that arise from the structure and themes of the book itself rather than from imposing theological assumptions upon it.
A Reversible Argument
The second way in which Gromacki demonstrates a theological confirmation bias in his contention that the absence of direct church references in chapters 4-19 constitutes a “mystery” is through a simple logical error. His argument is entirely reversible, and therefore proves nothing in and of itself.
If, as Gromacki suggests, the church must be directly mentioned in order for us to ascertain its whereabouts, then not only can it not be on earth but it can’t be in heaven, either, because we never see the term “church” or “churches” applied while describing anyone or anything depicted as being in heaven in chapters 4-19. The church is not mentioned during the seals, trumpets, and bowls—either on earth or in heaven. Thus, the absence of such references really tells us nothing of significance as to the church’s location during these events. In fact, considered apart from dispensational assumptions, it doesn’t even imply anything of significance.
In his article, Gromacki states that the church is “pictured” as being in heaven with Christ during the events of the Great Tribulation, so he does at least implicitly acknowledge that more is needed to support his case than direct references to the church throughout the book. I will examine some of the evidence that he believes supports his claim at a later time; however, I have heard this argument about the lack of direct references to the church on earth in chapters 4-19 repeated so often that it’s clear to me that many have been unduly impressed by it. For that reason, I felt it necessary to demonstrate why it is very weak when taken solely on its own merits.
“The Church” is not mentioned at all in Revelation
A third evidence of theological confirmation bias in Gromacki’s view of the church in Revelation stems from a simple, but consequentially profound, exegetical error.
When Gromacki says that he believes that “the true believers of the church have gone into the presence of Jesus Christ,” he is referring to the “church” in the sense of all living believers (what we might call “the universal church”). Yet, the term “church” is never used in this sense in the book of Revelation. Where the singular term “church” appears in Revelation, it always refers to a local, first-century congregation, specifically to one of “the seven churches that are in Asia,” to whom John addresses the book in Revelation 1:4; and where the plural term “churches” is found, it is always a corporate reference to those same seven churches. A simple search using a site like Bible Gateway or Blue Letter Bible will confirm this.
So, it is not just a matter of “the church” in the universal sense being absent from Revelation chapters 4-19; it is not referenced anywhere in the entire book! Gromacki is basing his argument on a usage that does apply to the book of Revelation at all, even in chapters 1-3. In fact, in all of the writings of the apostle John, the terms “church” and “churches” appear only in the epistle of 3 John and the book of Revelation, and only in one instance do we find what may be a reference to the “universal church.” When John refers to believers in general in his writings, he uses the terms “brethren” (12 times total, 4 times in Revelation) and “saints” (13 times, all in Revelation). Both terms are used throughout the New Testament in reference to Christians. As mentioned previously, in the book of Revelation, the “saints” are clearly located on the earth, where the Antichrist makes war on them and many are martyred (Revelation 13:7-10; 14:12). They are never depicted as being in heaven.
Click here for part two in this series.
 This is 3 John 1:5, where John writes: “Beloved, you are acting faithfully in whatever you accomplish for the brethren, and especially when they are strangers; and they have testified to your love before the church.” I stress here that this may be a reference to the universal church; it is also quite possibly a reference to the church that John was overseeing at the time (which may have received reports from those who had visited the ones to whom John was writing in this epistle).
* All scripture references are taken from the NASB.