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The rapture, or the belief that, at some point, Jesus’ living followers will join him forever while others do not, is an important but contested doctrine among evangelicals. Scholars generally hold one of three perspectives on the timing of and circumstances surrounding the rapture, all of which are presented in Three Views on the Rapture. The recent prominence of a Pre-Wrath understanding of the rapture calls for a fresh examination of this important but contested Christian belief. Alan D. Hultberg (PhD, Trinity...
The rapture, or the belief that, at some point, Jesus’ living followers will join him forever while others do not, is an important but contested doctrine among evangelicals. Scholars generally hold one of three perspectives on the timing of and circumstances surrounding the rapture, all of which are presented in Three Views on the Rapture. The recent prominence of a Pre-Wrath understanding of the rapture calls for a fresh examination of this important but contested Christian belief. Alan D. Hultberg (PhD, Trinity International University and professor of New Testament at Talbot School of Theology) explains the Pre-Wrath view; Craig Blaising (PhD, Dallas Theological Seminary and president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) defends the Pre-Tribulation view; and Douglas Moo (PhD, University of St. Andrews and professor of New Testament at Wheaton College) sets forth the Post-Tribulation view. Each author provides a substantive explanation of his position, which is critiqued by the other two authors. A thorough introduction gives a historical overview of the doctrine of the rapture and its effects on the church. The interactive and fair-minded format of the Counterpoints series allows readers to consider the strengths and weaknesses of each view and draw informed, personal conclusions.
Mention the word rapture these days and you will most likely get one of two responses. Some will have no clue what you are talking about. The word is a religious, theological term, and it is unfamiliar because, in an era of increasing secularism, theological knowledge and its technical vocabulary have greatly diminished in public discourse. Even the non technical sense of the word rapture, meaning something like an ecstatic joy, a meaning that derives from the technical, theological use, has all but disappeared from common usage.
On the other hand, for many the word rapture is a key term whose very mention brings to mind a whole set of eschatological notions, ideas, terms, and images that have to do with the rescue of God's people from troubling times coming upon the earth. A person may not know much of the technical theological vocabulary for this eschatology. But if they are familiar with these ideas at all, they most likely do know the word rapture, and many of those who do know it will also know the word "tribulation," which speaks of the troubling times that form the context of the Lord's coming. In fact, in popular evangelical discourse, the ideas of rapture and tribulation are so closely associated that they are like two sides of a coin-the one always goes with the other.
The position being argued in this essay-that of pretribulationism-is a particular way of understanding the relationship of the rapture to the tribulation, a way that is quite popular in contemporary evangelical thought. Pretribulationism is the view that the rapture, the "catching up" of resurrected and translated believers to meet the coming Christ in the air and be with him forever, precedes the tribulation, the time of trouble and judgment. At the climax of the tribulation, Christ will visibly descend to the earth with his saints to begin his millennial reign. In this view, the rapture is pretribulational because it takes place before the tribulation.
Most likely, people did not think much about the relationship of the rapture to the tribulation prior to the popularization of pretribulation ism. The reason for this is that through much of the history of Christian thought, the second coming of Christ has been treated as if it is a singular event. At the appointed time, Christ will suddenly descend to earth in visible form. After that the final judgment will take place and then the commencement of eternal destinies. In fact, through much of the history of the church, these eschatological events of the second coming tended to be thought of as the transition between time and eternity, a transition that would take place suddenly and definitely as time came to an end.
This simple view of eschatology was challenged by modern premillennialism, which proposed a more complex understanding of end-time events. Premillennialism predicted a one-thousand-year reign of Christ on earth between the second coming and the eternal state. Such a reign divided both the eschatological judgment and the resurrection of the dead into phases separated in time. Furthermore, modern premillennialism brought a renewed interest in the "tribulational" conditions of the second coming. Whereas medieval theology had equated the tribulation either with the early history or the long, ongoing history of the church, modern premillennialism became a forum for the consideration and testing of a futurist view of the tribulation, seeing it as a future time of trouble that would lead to and be the context for the second coming of Christ.
Working out the interpretation of biblical eschatology into a temporal sequence involving a future tribulation and a future millennium has consistently been affirmed by premillennialists as proper to a historical, grammatical, literary reading of the biblical text. But it raises a number of problems that were glossed over by earlier medieval hermeneutics. In the working out of these problems, aiming at a consistent interpretation, some premillennialists in the early nineteenth century proposed the interpretation of the pretribulational rapture.
In what follows, I will present what I believe to be the argument for pretribulationism. This argument is an interpretation of the relationship of the rapture to the day of the Lord as presented by the apostle Paul in his letters to the Thessalonians, understood in the greater canonical context of the teaching of Jesus and the Old Testament prophets. Before concluding, we will also consider implications from the book of Revelation and the way in which pretribulationism harmonizes some aspects of premillennialism. At the end, I will comment on the relationship of pretribulationism to dispensational thought.
The Rapture and the day of the Lord
We begin with the text that most clearly designates the rapture, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. In the first chapter of this letter, Paul describes the Thessalonian Christians as waiting for the Lord to come from heaven and deliver them from the wrath to come (1:10). Apprehension had apparently arisen concerning believers who die before his coming. They will not be lost, Paul assures his readers; when the Lord comes, he will raise them from the dead. How that will happen is described in 4:16: "For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.
After resurrecting the dead in Christ, the Lord will then "snatch up" living believers together with them to meet him "on the clouds," and "in the air." After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever (4:17). The Greek verb harpagesometha, translated "caught up" in 1 Thessalonians 4:17, is more vividly rendered "snatched up" (NET note), correctly indicating a sudden, forceful removal of the whole lot of resurrected and living believers up to the presence of the Lord. This is the same verb that is used in Acts 8:39 to describe how the Spirit of the Lord "snatched away" (NET; Gk., herpasen) Philip after the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch. In the Vulgate, harpagesometha is translated rapiemur, from rapio, and it is from that word that the English word rapture is derived. Accordingly, 1 Thessalonians 4:17 would be correctly rendered "Then we who are alive, who are left, will be raptured together with them."
The immediate purpose of the rapture in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 is to meet the Lord in the air. The phrase "to meet the Lord," eis apantesin tou kyriou, as many have pointed out, was used of a welcoming delegation coming out of a city to receive and accompany an arriving dignitary. The assembling of the saints around the coming Lord surely carries this connotation, but with certain differences. First, it is not actually a delegation that meets him but the whole company of saints, those previously dead now resurrected and those alive at his coming. Second, they do not "go out" to meet him at their own discretion, but they are "snatched up" by the Lord, who has descended apparently for this very purpose of rapturing them. Third, the text says nothing about their accompanying him on the completion of his descent; rather, Paul concludes his description of the event with the assembly in heaven, encouraged by the fact that "we will always be with the Lord" (NET). In other words, while the notions of greeting and accompanying an arriving dignitary are not absent from the image being conveyed here, there is another image at work complicating and dominating the overall picture. This other image is that of a rescue. The Lord rescues dead saints from death (this is further developed in 1 Corinthians 15), and with them he snatches up living saints, who were described in 1:10 as waiting for him to come from heaven and deliver them from the wrath to come. He raptures them to deliver them from a coming wrath. Once the wrath is completed, we may assume on the basis of the other image that the whole assembly would then accompany him in the completion of his expected return.
In 1 Thessalonians 5, Paul turns to the matter of how believers should live in light of the coming "day of the Lord." The day of the Lord is a well-known theme in the Old Testament Prophets indicating a climactic outpouring of divine wrath. Israel was warned about a coming day of the Lord that manifested itself in the destruction of the northern kingdom in 721 BC. The Babylonian invasion and destruction of the southern kingdom involving eventually the siege and over throw of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple in 586 BC were prophesied as a day of the Lord. However, many prophecies spoke of the later destructions that would come upon these invaders and other nations complicit with them as being days of the Lord, God visiting his wrath upon them for their wickedness and hostility toward the people of God. Some of these prophecies contain predictions that are global in scope. They resonate with yet another group of day of the Lord prophecies that are mostly postexilic and foresee a yet future day of judgment coming against the whole world for its evil and sin.
These days of the Lord are similar in description, with literary features that are oftentimes repeated. They are days of darkness, dread, and gloom. The earth and the heavens are shaken. People are gripped in terror as destruction and death come upon them. They are days of battle and slaughter-a sacrifice to appease the wrath of God. The repetition of such elements among the days of the Lord forms a literary type, and this type carries forward into the predictions of an ultimate day in which God's wrath is yet to be poured out. That day will be a time in which the Lord once again gathers the nations into war, but it will be the Lord who will fight against them. Fear and terror will seize them, the earth will be shaken, the heavens will be darkened, and death will overtake them. The proud and arrogant will be humbled, the wicked will be consumed, and both idols and idolaters will be destroyed. But the Lord will be a refuge for his people. He will save them, sanctify them, and bring them into the rich blessings of his kingdom. The Old Testament in fact ends on just this note, with Malachi's prophecy of the coming day of the Lord, which will bring judgment to the wicked and deliverance to the righteous (Mal 4:1-6).
The New Testament picks up this theme with both John the Baptist and Jesus addressing the coming judgment and the salvation that God will provide. Although the Gospels do not per se use the phrase "day of the Lord," the expression reappears in the Epistles, often altered to reflect the New Testament understanding that Jesus is the Lord who comes on that day to execute divine judgment and deliver the righteous.
In this sense, Paul references the day of the Lord in 1 Thessalonians 5 after talking about the coming of the Lord to rapture the saints who have been waiting for him to deliver them from the coming wrath. The day of the Lord is the broader eschatological event that connects these themes. And it is in consideration of both of these themes that Paul proceeds to make his parenetic point.
Paul reminds the Thessalonians that the day of the Lord will arrive suddenly and unexpectedly, coming "like a thief in the night" (1 Thess. 5:2). The point of the metaphor was made by Jesus, who, after using it, said, "If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into" (Matt. 24:43). Just as one has no idea when a thief will come, so one does not know when the day of the Lord will begin. Its sudden arrival will surprise people (5:4), who will have no clue from conditions that prevailed before its onset. In fact, those conditions will be exactly opposite that of the day of the Lord itself ("peace and safety" versus "sudden destruction," 5:3).
Excerpted from Three Views on the Rapture by Craig Blaising Alan Hultberg Douglas J. Moo Copyright © 2010 by Alan Hultberg, Craig Blaising, and Douglas Moo. Excerpted by permission.
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