Is the secret rapture the blessed hope?

Dividing Christ's second coming into two events—a secret rapture followed seven years later by His glorious appearing to destroy the antichrist—is a concept that seems to have no Biblical support.

The New Testament teaches that the church of Jesus Christ, in spite of expecting a great apostasy and tribulation, should look forward to the blessed hope of the Messiah's second appearance when Jesus will return from heaven in divine glory to resurrect the dead in Christ, to save the living righteous, and to destroy the oppressive antichrist:

"For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father's glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done" (Matt. 16:27). *

"He will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him" (Heb. 9:28).

"For the Lord himself will come down from heaven [parousia, verse 15], 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 that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever" (1 Thess. 4:16, 17).

"God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels" (2 Thess. 1:6, 7).

"And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will over throw with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendor of his coming [parousia]" (2 Thess. 2:8).

"Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. . . . Then the saying that is written will come true: 'Death has been swallowed up in victory'" (1 Cor. 15:51- 54).

According to dispensational eschatology, the second coming of Christ must be divided into two events: the secret rapture of the church, which can happen at any moment, followed seven years later by the glorious second coming of Christ to destroy the antichrist. During these intervening seven years, the great tribulation for the Jewish people (National Israel) will take place. At the rapture, before this tribulation, Christ comes only for the saints (see John 14:3); at the glorious Parousia or epiphaneia (appearing), Christ comes with the saints (see 1 Thess. 3:13). This is, in short, the program of events taught by pretribulation dispensationalists.

If, as I believe, this program is not based on responsible Biblical exegesis but is imposed upon Holy Scripture by a preconceived doctrine of the separation of Israel and the church, then a careful comparison of Scripture with Scripture should establish the true blessed hope of the people of Christ Jesus and their relation to the final tribulation. As soon as it is determined from Holy Scripture that the "rapture" and the "glorious appearing" are not two separate events but a single, glorious Advent, the doctrine of an imminent, pretribulation rapture is proven to be a defective view and a misdirected hope.

The New Testament employs three Greek terms to describe the Second Advent of Christ: parousia (coming), apocalypsis (revelation), and epiphaneia (appearing).

The parousia of Christ, is described in 1 Thessalonians 3:13; 4:15 -17; 2 Thessalonians 2:8; and Matthew 24:27. A compari son of these passages makes one thing clear: The parousia of Christ will cause not only the rapture of the church and the resurrection of the righteous dead, but also the destruction of the antichrist, the lawless one. In 2 Thessalonians 2:8 Paul speaks of "the splendor of his coming" (literally: "the epiphaneia of his parousia") thus pointing to the parousia as a dramatic and glorious event. To wait for this glorious appearing of Christ is, for the apostle, the blessed hope of the church: "We wait for the blessed hope—the glorious appearing [epiphaneia] of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ" (Titus 2:13). Christ even likened His parousia to the flash of the lightning from the east to the west, stressing again a visible event that will be evident to all people (see Matt. 24:27).

No trace of secret, invisible, or instantaneous rapture of the church is to be found in the New Testament. On the contrary, 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 suggests the very opposite: "a loud-command," "the voice of the archangel," "the trumpet call of God," "the dead in Christ will rise." The living saints will be "caught up" (raptured) together with the resurrected saints to meet the Lord in the air. No word about secrecy, or invisibility, or even about an instantaneous rapture is found here. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul reveals the mystery that the church will be "changed" from mortality to immortality "in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet" (verse 52). It is this transformation that will be instantaneous, according to Paul, not the rapture from the earth to the air or to heaven. The parousia of Christ will be the most dramatic, earthshaking event in human history—salvation for all the saints, coupled with judgment for the impenitent world and the antichrist—and will take place not at any moment but at the last trumpet of God's own appointed time (see verses 51-55; Acts 1:6, 7).

The destruction of the wicked persecutors of Christ's church will also take place at the apocalypsis, or revelation, of Jesus Christ in glory (see 2 Thess. 1:6, 7). It is at that revelation of Christ that the church will receive relief, or rest, from her persecution, not at some "secret rapture" seven years before the glorious revelation of Christ "from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels" (verse 7).

Paul taught the church of Corinth that they should "eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed [apocalypsis]" (1 Cor. 1:7). This makes the glorious apocalypsis, or revelation, of Jesus Christ the blessed hope of the church. This event takes place on "the day of our Lord Jesus Christ" (verse 8). Also, Peter calls the hope of salvation for the church, not a rapture, but the revelation of the glory of Jesus Christ (see 1 Peter 1:7, 13; 4:13). We arrive, therefore, at the conclusion that the New Testament makes no distinction between the parousia, the apocalypsis, and the epipkaneia of Jesus Christ. These terms signify one single, indivisible advent of Christ to bring salvation of immortal glory to all believers and judgment to their wicked persecutors.

The vocabulary of the New Testament, which describes Christ's return as the blessed hope of the church, does not allow for the idea of two comings, or two phases of His coming, separated by a seven-year period of tribulation. It substantiates only one appearance of Christ in glory, to rescue the church from the antichrist at the end of the tribulation. 1 That Advent is called, by Inspiration, His appearance "a second time" (Heb. 9:28), not "two more times."

How then, do dispensationalists get the "secret rapture" idea from the Bible? It is basically the result of the hermeneutic of a preconceived literalism of "Israel." C. C. Ryrie explains: "The distinction between Israel and the Church leads to the belief that the Church will be taken from the earth before the beginning of the tribulation (which in one major sense concerns Israel)." 2

When one asks why the tribulation time will concern only literal Israel or the Jews and not the church, J. F. Walvoord states that the great tribulation is "a time of preparation for Israel's restoration (Deut. 4:29, 30;Jer. 30:4-11)." 3

But what is the nature of this preparation time, according to Deuteronomy 4:29 and 30:1-10? A great tribulation? No, a time of seeking Yahweh with the whole heart and of a new obedience to His commandments! Moses made this spiritual preparation the explicit condition for a return to the promised land and a restored theocracy when Israel would be in the distress of the scattering. The assurance that God will provide for a faithful, spiritual remnant during the Babylonian exile, the time of Jacob's trouble (see Jer. 30:7), does not negate or obscure the divine prerequisite of a true repentance before such a believing remnant will be restored to the land of blessing and prosperity (see Deut. 30: 1-10). A closer look at Jeremiah, chapters 30 and 31, reveals the well-known anthol ogy of restoration promises for the twelve tribes in the Assyrian-Babylonian captivity. They include the new-covenant promise that Yahweh will provide a new spirit of willing obedience in the hearts of a repentant Israel and Judah (see chaps. 31:31-34, 18, 19; 30:9). Such was the spiritual nature of Israel's preparation time in her Babylonian tribulation before her restoration. The Bible presents no differ ent program of God for Israel today or in the future. These conditional promises of God are unchanged and irrevocable for Israel until the final Judgment.

Why, then, do some leading dispensational writers infer that the church of Christ will not pass through the final tribulation, or suppression, by the antichrist? Why does the church not need such a time of preparation for her glorification?

Walvoord states, "None of the New Testament passages on the tribulation mention the church (Matt. 24:15-31; 1 Thess. 1:9-10; 5:4-9; Rev. 4-19)." 4 How ever, surely all these passages are unquestionably addressed to the church of Christ! The argument from silence proves nothing. R. H. Gundry appropriately replies: "The Church is not mentioned as such in Mark, Luke, John, 2 Timothy, Titus, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, or Jude, and not until chapter 16 of Romans. Unless we are prepared to relegate large chunks of the NT to a limbo of irrelevance to the Church, we cannot make the mention or omission of the term "church" a criterion for determining the applicability of a passage to saints of the present age." 5

On the other hand, the Revelation of John shows that a countless multitude of believers in the Lord Jesus Christ will pass through and '"come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb'" (Rev. 7:14). These tribulation saints have suffered heavily for the sake of Christ (see Rev. 7:16, 17). Can we assert that these Christians are from the Jewish race only, when John does not differentiate between tribulation saints and Christians; when he even states explicitly that these victorious believers before the throne and the Lamb come "from every nation, tribe, people and language" (Rev. 7:9)? This "great tribulation" does not refer to God's retributive wrath on the impenitent, but to the fierce persecution of the saints by the antichrist and the false prophet, in short, to the wrath of Satan (see Rev. 12:17; 13:15-17; 14:12).

Jesus warned His followers in advance that they would have trouble, or tribulation, for His sake and would even be killed in religious fanaticism (see John 16:2, 33). To the church in Smyrna, the exalted Christ sent this consolation: "Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life" (Rev. 2:10; cf. 1:9; Acts 14:22; Rom. 5:3).

To escape the natural, normal interpretation of the saints as the church of Christ in Revelation chapters 6-20, the words from heaven to John in Revelation 4:1, " 'Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this,'" are interpreted as teaching the rapture of the church from earth to heaven. But such a forced exegesis is rejected even by some dispensational writers such as R. H. Gundry. He agrees that the literal exegesis requires that those words be applied to John the revelator himself, and the phrase "after this" (meta tauta) to the sequence in the personal experience of John's receiving a new vision; after his vision on earth, John is called to see a new vision in heaven. There is no reference to a succession of times or dispensations of fulfillments of visions.6

We conclude, therefore, that the church under Christ will go through fierce tribulations but will be victorious and withstand also the final, great tribulation of the antichrist (see 1 Thess. 3:3; 1 John 2:18; 4:3; Matt. 16:18). Paul writes that the church is destined for trials (see 1 Thess. 3:3), yet that "God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Thess. 5:9). Consequently, we need to distinguish between the tribulation of persecution by the antichrist, and the retributive wrath of God appointed to the impenitent world alone.

During the seven apocalyptic plagues of Revelation 16, which are Babylon's plagues, the church on earth receives Christ's promise of divine protection just as ancient Israel enjoyed God's protection when He struck Egypt with ten plagues (see Rev. 3:10, 11; 14:20; 16:15; Ex. 11:7). The church of Christ will suffer persecution during the final tribulation of antichristian Babylon, but she will not suffer the divine wrath. This wrath, which will be poured out from heaven on wicked Babylon during the final crisis, culminates in Armageddon and the rescue of God's people by the glorious second advent of Christ (see Rev. 13:15-17; 14:6-20; 16; 18:4; 19:11-21). The Apocalypse knows of no pretribulational rapture of the church, but rather presents an exclusive post-tribulation second coming of Christ. This conclusion is confirmed in other New Testament apocalyptic passages by Christ and Paul, which portray the undeniable order: first the great tribulation for the church, then her deliverance by Christ's glorious appearing.

A pretribulational parousia, or secret rapture, of the church is not a teaching of the New Testament (neither explicitly or implicitly), but is based, rather, on the preconceived doctrine of a separation of Israelites and Christians. This separation is then forced upon the texts for the sake of the doctrine.

Any basic separation of the old and new covenant peoples has validity only if there is a Biblical separation between Yahweh and Christ, between the Redeemer of Israel and the Redeemer of the church. Jesus Christ, however, emphatically claimed to be the one Shepherd of both flocks, who had come to gather both Jews and Gentiles into one flock with one destiny—the New Jerusalem (see John 10:14-16; Rev. 21).

 

1 See G. E. Ladd, The Blessed Hope (Eerdmans, 1960 3d pr.), Chapter 3, for a detailed study. The dispensational theologian Charles F. Baker, A Dispensational Theology, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Grace Bible College Publications, 1972), admits after his analysis of the three words for the second coming, "We must conclude that
the distinction between the coming of Christ at the time of the Rapture and His coming back to earth cannot be established simply by the words that are used" (p. 616).


2 Dispensationalism Today, p. 159. Cf. J. F. Walvoord, The Rapture Question (Zondervan, 1972, 9th pr.), p. 192, "Only pretribulationism distinguishes clearly between Israel and the church and their respective programs."

3 Walvoord, idem, p. 193.

4 Ibid.

5 The Church and the Tribulation (Zondervan, 1973), p. 78.

6 See R. H. Gundry, idem, pp. 64-66.

 

* "All Bible texts are from The Holy Bible: New International Version. Copyright © 1978 by the New York International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.


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January 1982

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