The shadow of future events casts itself ahead of time, even though those events have not yet transpired. And even though the rapture of the church is the next event on the prophetic calendar, the stage-setting for the events (like props for a drama) to follow may well occur before it. Indeed, we would expect it to occur before the rapture takes place, since otherwise the fulfillment of so many things in the tribulation would be all the more difficult to occur. Thus, we might anticipate a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem, an alignment of ten nations, peace between middle eastern nations and Israel under the charisma of a single world ruler, movements toward a one-world government, etc.
At the same time, we must be very careful not to say that the events we see shaping up before our eyes are necessarily a fulfillment of prophecy, for history has taught us to be cautious about such early predictions. The Lord may well wait another millennium before returning. On other fronts, one of the things that is satisfactory about dispensationalism is that it is in line with the church’s hope of Christ’s return. Its doctrine of imminence has almost always been held, from the first century to the twentieth. In this respect, its doctrinal foundation cannot be charged with being a recent development (as many would so charge).
However, in relation to a two-stage coming of Christ, its doctrinal core has no support in church history until the early nineteenth century. Once you combine the church’s historical understanding of imminence with an interpretation of the tribulation that is in line with Daniel’s first 69 weeks (i.e., literal seven-year periods), then pretribulational dispensationalism is the natural result. Ironically, those who see the tribulation as a literal seven-year period, yet do not hold to pretribulationalism, try to argue against dispensational interpretation on the basis of church history—yet their peculiar eschatology has less of a basis historically than pretribulationism does. We should not argue for or against dispensational theology on the basis of church history (nor for or against any other position on such a basis). To be sure, we must always pause when departing from a consensus view of the church, but we also must pause about departing from the plain meaning of the text.