Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 1/9/00
In our brief look at eschatology as we kick off a new millennium, we have seen that Daniel's vision of the Great Statue precludes us from seeing the Kingdom of Heaven as coming gradually through human effort, as in Post Millennialism, and that the Rapture of 1 Thes. 4 is not the answer to the question whether Christians will go through the Tribulation, but rather to the question of what happens to those who have died in the Lord, who, far from missing out on the kingdom, will be the first to rise. Today we look at the vexed question of the timing of the Rapture. Three factors historically have led to the dominance of the PreTribulation Rapture theory in conservative circles. First, the Niagra Bible Conferences at the turn of the last Century, with dynamic teachers like D. L. Moody, A. T. Pierson, A. J. Gordon, C. W. Schofield, and Arno C. Gabelein, first made prophecy seem relevant to the daily lives of the average believer. Second, the institutions that arose out of this movement, primarily Dallas Theological Seminary and Moody Bible Institute, have been committed to that view. Most importantly, the popular Schofield study Bible taught it in its notes. As a result, many of us were raised to believe that this view was the only conservative option, that anything else was the first step to liberalism and apostacy. Imagine then my surprise to learn that it only goes back to 1830. If it is the clear teaching of Scripture, why did nobody notice it until then? Let us look at the Bible afresh to see whether it can be found there when we do not already bring it with us.
There are six major arguments for the Pre-Trib view. First, that Dispensationalism makes a radical and sharp distinction between Israel and the Church, two different peoples of God with their own separate destinies, and the Tribulation, the "Time of Jacob's Trouble," deals with Israel, not the Church. Second, the Tribulation is the outpouring of God's wrath, and 1 Thes. 5:9 says the Church is not destined for wrath. Third, that Rev. 3:10 is a promise that the Church will be "kept from" the "hour of testing" that is coming upon the world. Fourth, that the Church is not mentioned after Rev. 4, when the vials, bowls, and trumpets of God's wrath are being poured out. Fifth, that 2 Thes. 2:7 says that the Holy Spirit, who restrains sin, will be removed during the Tribulation; since He indwells the Church, it will be gone too. And sixth, that the doctrine of Imminence, clearly taught by passages such as Mt. 24:42, demands it--one cannot be prepared at any moment for something that cannot happen for at least seven more years.
These arguments look pretty good until you actually examine them closely, and then they all tend to fall apart. While the NT does maintain a distinction between Israel and the Church, Rom. 11 clearly shows that there is also a unity--there is not nor will there ever be two peoples of God, but only one, the Olive Tree. Israel will be preserved so that she can be grafted back into the one people of God, but no conclusion about the Church being separate as far as tribulation is concerned can be drawn. The opposite of wrath in 1 Thes. 5:9 is not escape from temporal tribulation (whether "The Great" or not) but salvation, escape from eternal punishment. Rev. 3:10 is a promise made not the the Church in general but to the Church of Philadelphia, one of seven churches addressed in Revelation. Also, the method of protection is not specified. The only other passage in which the same phrase (tereo ek) occurs is Jn. 17:15, where the Lord prays for a protection for the Church that specifically does NOT involve removal from the world, but rather protection of its integrity while it remains in the world. The absence of any mention of the Church after Rev. 4 is an argument from silence, which logically proves nothing. Nobody knows what 2 Thes. 2:7 means. It might refer to the Holy Spirit, but it might equally refer to secular government--the kind ordained by God in Rom. 13, which has the function of restraining evil, and which will no longer exist as such once the AntiChrist has taken over. I do not know who the Restrainer is, and neither does anybody else, so nothing can be built on the verse. And finally, if an any-moment Rapture is essential to imminence, what did Believers do who lived before the return of Israel to the land? Or before the proclamation of the Gospel to every tongue, tribe, and nation? Was imminence irrelevant to them?
Up to this point, we have made the PreTrib view look very shaky. But 2 Thes. 2:1-3 topples it over and eliminates it from view completely. Vs. 1 in Greek yokes the coming of Christ and our gathering to him grammatically together as one unit, and then vs. 3 says that this thing will not happen until after the Man of Sin is revealed. MidTrib would still be a theoretical possibility, but no honest reading of this passage can allow PreTrib to survive as a viable option for people who believe the Bible.
What is the upshot? Must we give up imminence? No. It means that the Second Coming is something relevant to my life, not to some obviously far distant future; that the whole chain of events which includes the Rapture really could begin to unfold at almost any moment. But the Rapture itself will not overtake the Church like a thief in the night, because we are not children of darkness but of light. It will only be like a thief for the World. The message of Scripture is that we must be prepared to give our lives for the Lord. But that when things look their worst--even in the Great Tribulation itself--we must not despair, but "lift up our heads, for our redemption draweth nigh." Bottom line: if we teach that the Church will indeed go through the Tribulation, and we are wrong, everybody gets a very pleasant surprise, and will be too excited about meeting the Lord to remember that we got our eschatological chart wrong. But if we teach the PreTrib view and we are wrong, we do incalculable damage by helping to create a Church unprepared for the witness it will have to give in very dark days. I am pretty sure I've got this part of the scenario at least right, though dogmatism on the details of eschatology is not something you will ever hear from me. But I am sure of which mistake, if it is a mistake, I would rather risk. The purpose of this teaching is to equip the Church with the spiritual backbone it will need if it is called to martydom. If we end up not needing to use it, I hope you will not find it hard to forgive me for trying to build it in you.
Here endeth the lesson.