Christ's Return and the "Rapture": Evaluating Dispensationalism
No evaluation of dispensational pre-millennialism may ignore its teaching of a two-phased return of Christ, the first phase of which is commonly known as the rapture. This feature of dispensationalism is its most popular and widely known aspect. Popularized by such bestselling books as Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth, the film "The Return," and bumper stickers which note that, in the event of the rapture, the vehicle will be without driver and possibly passengers, dispensationalism has enjoyed a large following among conservative Christians, especially in North America.
The view that has predominated in dispensationalism is known as pre-tribulational rapturism. In the older, classical version of dispensationalism, this view held that the first phase of Christ's return, His "coming" or "parousia," would precede a seven year period of tribulation, and that the second phase of Christ's return, His "revelation" or "appearing," would introduce the millennium or one thousand year reign of Christ on the earth. The first phase, Christ's "coming," is the "rapture" of 1 Thessalonians 4:15,1 an event which is said to be Christ's coming "for" His saints in contrast to His subsequent return (the second phase) which is a coming "with" the saints who will thereupon reign on the earth with Christ for a period of one thousand years. Though this view has been somewhat modified in more recent dispensationalism, it remains far and away the most popular view among dispensationalists to this day. The views known as "mid-tribulationalism" and "post-tribulationism," as the terminology suggests, differ as to the timing of the rapture, but have relatively few defenders.2
In the notes of the New Scofield Reference Bible, the rapture is an event that can occur at any moment.3 There are no events in the biblical timetable for the future that need occur before the first phase of Christ's return can take place. Christ's return for His saints will be preceded by the resurrection of all believing saints. After the resurrection of deceased saints, all living believers will be immediately transformed. All of these saints, resurrected and transformed, will then be caught up (raptured) with Christ (whose return to earth will only be partial and for this purpose alone) and meet Him in the air. Thus, the church of Jesus Christ will be raptured from the earth and be taken to heaven for a period of seven years, the "marriage feast of the lamb," during which period great tribulation will befall the earth.
While the raptured church enjoys this period of the marriage feast, a number of events will occur upon the earth. A period of tribulation will begin, the latter half of which will be a period of "great tribulation." This fulfils the prophecy of Daniel 9:27. In this latter half of the period of tribulation, the anti-Christ will arise, the "beast out of the sea," who will impose great cruelties on the earth and pretend to be as God. During this period of great tribulation, the elect of the children of Israel and a great number of the Gentiles will be saved. The end of this period of great tribulation will witness a period of intensified opposition to the people of God. The kings of the earth, the armies of the beast and the false prophet, will join forces against the people of God. However, Christ will return with His saints and destroy all of His enemies at the battle of Armageddon. Thereupon, the millennial Kingdom, during which Christ will rule upon the earth, will commence.4
Christ's Return Not a Two-Phased Event
Though there are many details and variations upon this view that we have not included in this summary, these should be sufficient to our purpose. The key questions which must be addressed, in respect to pre-tribulational rapturism, are really two: first, does the Bible teach that Christ's return is an event that will take place in two phases, separated by an intervening period of seven years duration?; and second, does the Bible teach that the first of these phases will be the kind of "rapture" envisioned by dispensationalism?
In the earlier period of dispensational pre-millennialism, it was often argued that the New Testament uses the three common terms for the return of Christ, parousia (presence, coming), apokalupsis (revelation) and epiphaneia (appearance), to distinguish the two phases of Christ's return. The first term was said to be the term for the event at Christ's initial coming, His coming "for" His saints at the rapture. The second and third terms were said to be used for the event of Christ's coming at the end of the seven year period of tribulation, His coming "with" His saints.
This claim, however, cannot stand up to scrutiny. There is clear evidence in the New Testament that these terms are used interchangeably, to refer to one event, the return of Christ at the end of the age. For example, in 1 Thessalonians 4:15, the apostle Paul uses the first term, parousia, to describe the rapture. But in 1 Thessalonians 3:13, he uses the same term to describe the "coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints." According to dispensationalism, this latter event of Christ's coming "with" His saints occurs only at the "revelation" of Christ, an event supposed to take place seven years after the rapture. Similarly, in 2 Thessalonians 2:8, the apostle Paul uses the term parousia to refer to the event when Christ will destroy the "man of lawlessness" or anti-Christ, an event which in dispensationalism is said not to occur until the "revelation" at the end of the seven-year period of tribulation. Most unsettling to the dispensationalist argument is the fact that this passage uses two of the three terms for Christ's return in close proximity, as synonyms, when it speaks of how Christ will "bring to nought" the man of lawlessness "by the appearance of His coming"!
Moreover, both the terms apokalupsis and epiphaneia are used in the epistles of the apostle Paul for what dispensationalists would regard as the first and second phases of Christ's return. In 1 Corinthians 1:7, the term apokalupsis is used to describe what would be called the "rapture," since the believers in Corinth are said to be "waiting for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ." However, in 2 Thessalonians 1:7, 8, this term is used to describe what dispensationalists would regard as the "revelation" or "second," second coming of Christ! The same interchangeability is evident in 1 Timothy 6:14, where the term epiphaneia is used to describe the rapture, and in 2 Timothy 4:1, where it refers to Christ's coming as Judge of the living and the dead.5 There is, accordingly, no basis in the New Testament's use of these terms for Christ's return to support the idea that this return will occur in two distinct phases.
In addition to this appeal to the use of terms for Christ's return, dispensationalists also argue for a two-phased return by insisting that the church will not suffer the kind of tribulation, including the "great tribulation," that will characterize the seven year period between Christ's coming and His revelation. This insistence, however, cannot be sustained by appeal to the New Testament Scriptures.
In the "Olivet Discourse" recorded in Matthew 24, Jesus, in reply to the disciple's question regarding the destruction of the temple and the sign of His coming and the end of the age, speaks of a "great tribulation" which will occur prior to His coming. This tribulation will be so severe that it will be shortened for the sake of the elect (v. 22). The reference in this passage to the elect indicates that believers will not be raptured before the tribulation of those days, but will experience it themselves. Dispensationalist teaching, accordingly, maintains that the "elect" in these verses refers to the Jews and not to the church, noting that the term "church" is not used in this chapter. This is an argument from silence, however, that is considerably weakened by the fact that the gospels seldom use the term "church."6 The most evident reading of this passage is to take it as a reference to tribulation that befalls the people of God, the elect (whether Jew or Gentile), before the return of Christ at the end of the age.
It is also important to observe that, in this same passage dealing with the "signs of the times," Christ describes the rapture in a way that indicates that it will not only follow the period of tribulation but also mark the close of the age. In Matthew 24:31, we read the following description of what will occur after the tribulation of those days: "And he (the Son of Man) will send forth his angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other." This description is reminiscent of the language used in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 to describe the events which will occur at the time of the rapture (the descent of the Lord, the sound of the trumpet, the gathering of the elect). It is difficult to see why these passages should be taken as descriptions of different events, as in dispensationalism which refers the description in Matthew 24 to the second phase of Christ's return and thus to an event distinct from the rapture. It is not difficult, however, to see why dispensationalism is compelled to distinguish these passages: if the description of Matthew 24:31 were to refer to the rapture, then it would place the rapture after the period of tribulation rather than before it.
The same kind of difficulty confronts the dispensationalist as well, when it comes to the teaching of a passage like 2 Thessalonians 2 with its description of the "man of lawlessness" who will come before the day of the Lord. According to dispensationalism, the events described in this passage refer to events that will occur during the period of tribulation, especially the great tribulation, between the time of the rapture and the time of Christ's revelation. However, this would undermine the point of the apostle Paul's teaching in this passage. The point of this passage is to warn the believers in Thessalonica not to be deceived about the coming of the Lord, that it has already occurred (v. 2), by noting that the "man of lawlessness" and the "great apostasy" must occur first. This passage, which is written primarily to Gentile Christian believers (and not Jewish believers, as dispensationalists commonly teach), speaks of a number of events that will precede the coming of Christ and the day of the Lord. These events include the period of tribulation and the anti-Christ which dispensationalism places after the rapture, but which in this passage will occur before the rapture or the coming of the Lord to grant relief to His people or church.
Though it would be possible to explore some of these passages further, it should be evident that the problem facing dispensationalism at this point is the same problem confronted in our previous discussion of the return of Christ as a consummating event at the end of the age. Unless the Bible reader brings to many of these passages a preconceived doctrine of two distinct phases in the return of Christ, there is little prospect that such a teaching would be discovered or proven from them. The biblical teaching is that Christ will return after the period of tribulation to grant His church relief and His enemies eternal destruction (2 Thessalonians 1). These consequences of Christ's return coincide and therefore do not require the teaching of two distinct phases in the return of Christ.7
The "Rapture" of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
In order to complete this consideration of pre-tribulational rapturism, one of the hallmarks of dispensationalism, we have to give some attention to 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, the one passage in Scripture which describes directly the "rapture." A careful study of this passage will show, however, that this passage does not teach the kind of pre-tribulational rapture advocated by dispensationalism.
The first observation to be made about this passage is that it is addressed to a particular question that was pressing among the believers in the church at Thessalonica. Among these believers, there were those who were fearful that those saints who had previously "fallen asleep" in Jesus would not take part in the joy and blessedness accompanying the coming of Christ. For this reason, the apostle Paul begins this passage by saying:
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve, as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the Word of the Lord, that we who are alive, and remain until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep.
These words indicate that this fear was a lively one among the believers in Thessalonica, and the apostle Paul wants to reassure them that his answer to their fear is "by the Word of the Lord" Himself. They can rest assured that their fears are unfounded.
After acknowledging this concern that the departed saints not be left out of the joy of Christ's coming, the apostle goes on to answer it more directly with an account of the coming "rapture" in which believers will be "caught up together" with Christ in the air.
For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.
According to dispensationalism, these words teach that, at the parousia or first coming of Christ, the "first" resurrection will occur which will be a resurrection of all (and only) believing saints. These resurrected saints, together with the glorified saints who are living at the time of the Lord's coming, will be "raptured" or "caught up with" the Lord in the air in order to return with Him to heaven whence He came. These raptured saints, resurrected and glorified, will then be with Christ in heaven for the seven year period of tribulation, at the end of which they will return "with Him" to reign upon the earth for the one thousand year period of the kingdom on earth (the millennium).
But is this what is taught in this passage? There are several observations that, in my judgment, suggest that this interpretation is a classic example of finding something in a text that is not there, but that has been imported into the text (only to be then extracted from it)!
- First, when in verse 16 we read that the dead in Christ will rise first, this refers to the precedence of the resurrection of those saints who have fallen asleep in Jesus. These saints will be raised before the living saints are caught up with them and the Lord at His coming. They will, in other words, enjoy a privilege (being raised "first") not granted to those who are alive at Christ's coming. The dispensationalist teaching that this refers to the "first" resurrection, the resurrection of believing saints only at the time of the rapture, which is to be sharply distinguished from the "second" resurrection, the resurrection of the unbelieving that will occur at the close of the millennium more than one thousand years later, is not found in the text nor is it the point of the apostle's use of the term "first."
- Second, this passage speaks of all believers being caught up together "to meet the Lord in the air." Dispensationalists maintain that this refers to a meeting in the air which leads to a return of Christ and all the saints with Him to heaven whence He came. Returning to heaven, the Lord Jesus and His saints will remain there for seven years. But nothing of this is stated in the text. The text actually speaks of a being caught up together in the air "unto a meeting" between the Lord and the resurrected saints and the remaining saints who were alive at His coming.8 The word used in this text for "meeting" typically means a meeting between a visiting dignitary and representatives of the city or village being visited. Such a meeting would occur outside of the city or village visited, whereupon the visitor and welcoming party would return to the city.9 This word is used twice elsewhere in the New Testament (Acts 28:15; Matthew 25:6), and in both cases it refers to a meeting which takes place before the parties return to the place being visited. The meaning and use of this term, therefore, suggests that, in the case of the rapture, the saints who meet the Lord in the air will thereupon return with Him, not to heaven, but to the earth to which He comes at His parousia! The dispensationalist way of reading this verse is not consistent with the normal meaning and use of this term.
- Third, the result of this rapture or being caught up with the Lord in the air is said to be the blessedness of being "always with the Lord." This kind of language best fits the circumstance of the final state in which believers, now resurrected and glorified, will dwell forever in the most intimate and unbroken fellowship with the Lord Jesus Christ. Being always with the Lord is not to be limited to a period of seven years in heaven or even one thousand years upon the earth. The simplest reading of this passage is to take it to be a description of the final state.
- And fourth, there are several features of the description of this rapture that do not fit well with the dispensationalist position. The coming of the Lord, as it is described in these verses, is a visible, public event, one which is signaled by the descent of Christ from heaven "with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God." However, in dispensationalism, the first return or coming of Christ is said to be a "secret" rapture, in which believers will be suddenly snatched away without notice. This teaching is based in part upon an appeal to an allegedly parallel description of the rapture in Matthew 24:40-41, though we have already noted that that passage does not teach a pre-tribulational rapture. But the kind of event described in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18 corresponds to the descriptions of Christ's revelation from heaven at the end of the age in other passages (compare 1 Corinthians 15:20-24; 2 Thessalonians 2:12). These passages speak of Christ's return as a public event which will bring the present period of history to a close.
The teaching of a pre-tribulational rapture, as this is understood within the framework of dispensationalism, is not founded upon the teaching of any biblical passage. Nor is it a teaching that can withstand careful scrutiny, particularly when it is measured against the general teaching of the Scriptures regarding the return of Christ at the end of the age. The Bible teaches neither that believers will be exempted from present or future tribulation at the end of the present age nor that the rapture will be the kind of event described by dispensationalism. In the one passage that speaks of the event commonly known as the rapture, there is little support for the view that enjoys such popularity among dispensationalists. This only confirms the point that I have made in previous discussions of the return of Christ: when Christ comes to judge the living and the dead, this will be a single event, closing the present period of history and marking the introduction of the final state.