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Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Rapture: Did Paul Teach This Doctrine In 1 Thessalonians?

The following short paper was written for a Bible exposition course I am currently taking covering the book of Acts and the Pauline epistles. Ironically, it has been during my time as a student at one the biggest Dispensational schools that I have consistently continued to move away from Dispensational views. The doctrine of pre-tribulational Rapture is the latest Dispensational doctrine that I have come to question. As always, I'd love to hear some feedback on the ideas covered in this paper.

Through a glass darkly,
Jeff

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The idea of the imminent Rapture of believers from the earth is a commonly accepted doctrine among many American evangelicals today. Within evangelicalism, it is likely that there are very few doctrines that have been simply taken for granted more than the Rapture. This short paper will take a cursory look at the teachings of the late Dr. John F. Walvoord, President and Professor of Systematic Theology at Dallas Theological Seminary from 1952-1986, concerning the doctrine of the Rapture and 1 Thessalonians.

Summary of Walvoord’s Rapture Doctrine from 1 Thessalonians

Dr. Walvoord places particular emphasis on the doctrine of the Rapture when dealing with 1 Thessalonians. This section will focus on Walvoord’s interpretation of 1 Thess. 4:13-18 since he claims that this passage provides a “detailed account of the Rapture”[1] and considers it to be one of two “crucial revelations”[2] regarding the Rapture with the other being 1 Cor. 15:51-58.

Dr. Walvoord makes a distinction, of course, between the Rapture of the church and the second coming of Christ. Believers are caught up to heaven at the Rapture but at the second coming of Christ, they remain on earth.[3] Walvoord believes that Jesus Christ first introduced the concept of the Rapture in Jn. 14:1-3 but did not expound upon it at that time. He states that 1 Thess. is where God provided more detailed revelation concerning the subject.[4] According to Dr. Walvoord, a sequence of events is provided in 4:16, 17 that reads, “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” (NASB).

Walvoord explains that at this time Christ will descend to the “sphere of earth” in bodily form, will command the resurrection of the dead in Christ and the “translation of the living,” the voice of the archangel Michael will accompany this command, and the “trumpet call of God” will sound.[5] He understands these events to transpire simultaneously.

Walvoord’s Distinctions Between Rapture & 2nd coming of Christ[6]

Rapture
Saints meet Lord in the air
Living saints are translated
Christ transports sainst to heaven
Before the wrath
Imminent event

2nd Coming
Christ returns to Mt. of Olives
No translation; resurrection is later
Christ remains on earth, reigns 1,000 yrs
Follows Great Tribulation
Many preceding signs fulfilled first

Walvoord teaches that 1 Thess. 4:17 contains the essential description of the Rapture when it states that believers who “remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds.” Dr. Walvoord relates this event to what is recorded in Jn. 14:1-3 by explaining that Christ was referring to the Rapture in this passage when He told His disciples that He was going to prepare a place for them in His Father’s house and that He would come again to take them where He was going.[7] Again, Dr. Walvoord maintains a strict separation between the Rapture and the second coming of Christ. He believes that the Rapture takes before “the grand procession described in Revelation 19 of Christ’s return from heaven to earth to set up His earthly kingdom”.[8] Although Dr. Walvoord believes that 1 Thess. 4:13-18 “is most informative concerning the nature of the Rapture” he does point out that the passage “is designed to be an encouragement to those who are living in Christ.”

One of the keys to Walvoord’s distinction between the Rapture and the second coming of Christ is his observation that the 1 Thess. passage does not include any mention of “world-shaking events” that are to precede the taking up described in 4:17.[9] Dr. Walvoord points out that the second coming of Christ “will be preceded by divine judgments on the world and followed by the establishing of Christ’s earthly kingdom”.[10] Walvoord also places significant importance on his observation that “the Rapture is never mentioned in any of the passages that relate to the Great Tribulation”.[11] Since “no preceding events are ever revealed” in connection with the Rapture, he believes that “the Rapture in the New Testament is presented as an imminent event”.[12]

Critique of Walvoord’s Rapture View

Critics of Dr. Walvoord’s view of the Rapture (and of any notion of such a Rapture) are many. Barbara Rossing, Lutheran minister and author of The Rapture Exposed, claims, “The majority of New Testament passages on which dispensationalists base the notion of Rapture concern either resurrection or Jesus’ second coming – neither of which is the same as the Rapture, despite dispensationalist’s claims.”[13]

Paul Thigpen, a Protestant-turned-Catholic and author of The Rapture Trap, provides this sharp critique, “This novel, eccentric teaching only appeared late in Church history and has never been embraced by the great majority of believers, Catholic or otherwise. Neither ancient Christians, nor medieval Christians, nor even the founders of the major Protestant movements ever heard of the secret rapture doctrine. They knew of no invisible coming by Christ to catch believers up to heaven prior to His return to earth in clouds of glory. And when they wrote about that single, universally visible, glorious coming of the Lord, they often referred to the very same biblical passages that today’s secret rapture advocates claim must refer instead to an invisible snatching away.”[14]

Many evangelicals are critical of the Rapture as well. The well-known evangelical pastor and author, John Piper, critiques the notion of a pre-tribulational Rapture in 1 Thess. 4:17 in this manner: “The word for ‘meeting’ the Lord in the air in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 (apantesin) is used in two other places in the New Testament: Matthew 25:6 and Acts 28:15. In both places it refers to a meeting in which people go out to meet a dignitary and then accompany him in to the place from which they came out. One of these, Matthew 25:6, is even a parable of the second coming and so a strong argument that this is the sense of the meeting here in 1 Thess. 4:17-that we rise to meet the Lord in the air and then welcome him to earth as king.”[15]

Such criticisms do not necessarily establish the strength or weakness of Dr. Walvoord’s view of the Rapture but they do demonstrate that the Dispensational Pre-tribulational view of the Rapture is not as commonly held as some within the circle are apt to think.

One the main criticisms of the Rapture is in regards to the way proponents attempt to distinguish between the Rapture and the second coming of Christ. Dr. Walvoord confirms that Matt. 24 contains a description of the second coming but argues that this is completely separate and distinct from the Rapture.[16] Critics of the Rapture disagree. Professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, Dr. Ben Witherington III, claims that Matt. 24 and 1 Thessalonians 4 describe the same event: the second coming of Christ. The following is his comparison of the two passages:

The 2nd coming of Christ in 1 Thess. & Matt.24[17]
Christ returns - 1 Thess. 4:16; Matt. 24:30
from heaven - 1 Thess. 4:16; Matt. 24:30
accompanied by angels - 1 Thess. 4:16; Matt. 24:31
with a trumpet of God - 1 Thess. 4:16; Matt. 24:31
believers gathered to Christ - 1 Thess. 4:17; Matt. 24:31; 40-41
in clouds - 1 Thess. 4:17; Matt. 24:30
time unknown - 1 Thess. 5:1-2; Matt. 24:36
coming like a thief - 1 Thess. 5:2, 4; Matt. 24:43
unbelievers unaware of coming judgment - 1 Thess. 5:3; Matt. 24:37-39
judgment like a mother’s birth pangs - 1 Thess. 5:3; Matt. 24:8
believers not deceived - 1 Thess. 5:4-5; Matt. 24:43
believers to be watchful - 1 Thess. 5:6; Matt. 24:37-39
warning v. drunkenness - 1 Thess. 5:7; Matt. 24:49

Continuing in his critique of the idea of a distinction between the Rapture and the second coming of Christ, Witherington states, “One of the real weaknesses in the Dispensational approach to texts such as 1 Thessalonians 4-5 is that on the one hand they want parousia to refer to the secret rapture of the church here and in 2 Thessalonians 2:1, while on the other hand they tend to concede that parousia refers to the second coming in this very same argument at 2 Thessalonians 2:8. But Paul everywhere always uses this term consistently when speaking of Jesus to refer to the second coming, an all too visible event.”[18] As it so happens, Dr. Walvoord did indeed consider 2 Thess. 2:8 to be a reference to the second coming of Christ which Witherington singles out as an example of inconsistency in this matter.[19]

Conclusions and Observations

It seems that Walvoord may have believed that his view of a separate coming of Christ to rapture living saints distinct from “the second coming of Christ” is obvious in passages such as 1 Th. 4:17 that it was enough to assert that this is so without providing sufficient exegetical >evidence. For example, Walvoord states, “When some of the Thessalonians died, it raised the question of what would happen to them when the living were raptured. They apparently had the idea that the resurrection of the dead in Christ would not occur at the Rapture but would be sometime later. How much they understood about the coming Tribulation and the second coming of Christ is not clear in Thessalonians. When they asked Timothy to clear up this difficulty, he was unable to do so and brought this question, along with other theological questions, to Paul, and Paul answers them in 1 Thessalonians. The experience of the Thessalonian Christians make quite clear that they were expecting Christ to come at any time but did not anticipate going through the Tribulation because no mention is made of it.”[20]

Walvoord seems to write this section as if the Thessalonians presupposed his understanding of the Rapture. He claims in the above-mentioned quote that the Thessalonians were probably wondering what would happen to those who will be “raptured” and may have wondered if the resurrection of the dead in Christ would occur separately from “the Rapture” as if the Rapture were a commonly held belief of the believers at Thessalonica. He even seems to indicate that questions concerning the Rapture were part of the reason why Paul wrote this letter to the Thessalonians.

It is not necessarily my intention here to prove whether the Thessalonians shared Walvoord’s concept of the Rapture or not but rather to express doubt that such claims can be made from what is provided in the text of 1 Thessalonians. It does not appear to this author that the Rapture can be found in the text of 1 Thessalonians apart from presupposing the existence of such a doctrine. If it is indeed impossible to discern the reality of the Rapture from the text itself then it appears that Walvoord, among many others, may have read his understanding of the Rapture into the passage as he attempted to explain the occasion of Paul’s teachings in 1 Thess. 4:13-18. This would be highly problematic since it is this verse that Dr. Walvoord points to for clear teaching on the subject.

My study of the Rapture and the second coming of Christ is certainly not as extensive as that of a Bible teacher such as Dr. Walvoord’s was. However, based upon my study of the matter to date, it is my humble opinion that there is little to no evidence in Scripture for a coming of Christ to rapture believers from the earth that precedes and is distinct from the second coming of Christ. It is my understanding that Paul’s reference to the coming of Christ in 1 Thess. 4 is concerns the second coming of Christ.
[1] John F. Walvoord, The Prophecy Knowledge Handbook (Dallas: Dallas Seminary Press, 1990), 478.
[2] Ibid, 481.
[3] Ibid, 482.
[4] Ibid, 483.
[5] Ibid, 483.
[6] John F. Walvoord, Prophecy in the New Millennium: A Fresh Look at Future Events (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2001), 126-7.
[7] Walvoord, The Prophecy Knowledge Handbook, 484.
[8] Ibid, 484.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Walvoord, Prophecy in the New Millennium: A Fresh Look at Future Events, 124.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Barbara R. Rossing, The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2004), 31.
[14] Paul Thigpen, The Rapture Trap: A Catholic Response to "End Times" Fever (West Chester, PA: Ascension Press, 2001), 130.
[15] John Piper, Definitions and Observations Concerning the Second Coming of Christ (1987, accessed September 24, 2006); available from http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/Articles/ByDate/1987/1493_Definitions_and_
Observations_Concerning_the_Second_Coming_of_Christ/.
[16] John F. Walvoord, The Final Drama: Fourteen Keys to Understanding the Prophetic Scriptures (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1997), 134-5.
[17] Ben Witherington III, The Problem with Evangelical Theology: Testing the Exegetical Foundations of Calvinism, Dispensationalism, and Wesleyanism (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2005), 117.
[18] Ibid, 129.
[19] Walvoord, The Final Drama: Fourteen Keys to Understanding the Prophetic Scriptures, 31.
[20] Walvoord, Prophecy in the New Millennium: A Fresh Look at Future Events, 125.

14 comments:

  1. Jeff,

    Your a Prewrath Rapturist and you don't even know it! :-)

    My recent article demonstrates the consistency between Jesus and Paul on the same future Parousia.

    Click here for article.

    Let me know your thoughts,
    Alan

    ReplyDelete
  2. Jeff,

    Just a quick note. Piper is not critical of the rapture. He is critical of the pretrib-rapture.

    In fact, Piper's view is very close to a prewrath rapture understanding.He taught in this subject a few summers ago during the Wed. night Bible studies in that summer.

    The fact is that at the Coming of Christ those Christians who remain on earth, Paul says that their bodies at the trumpet call will be changed from perishable to imperishable (1Cor 15:52-53). This will occur as we are caught up in the sky (1Thes 4:15-17).

    Thanks,
    Alan

    ReplyDelete
  3. --"...I have consistently continued to
    move away from Dispensational views. The doctrine of pre-tribulational Rapture is the latest Dispensational doctrine that I have come to question."


    Ditto. Both were givens growing up but are in serious doubt now.

    What do you think of the argument made here?

    ReplyDelete
  4. "Just a quick note. Piper is not critical of the rapture. He is critical of the pretrib-rapture."

    True. Maybe I should make that more explicit in my paper. I don't turn it in until Thursday so I still have time to tweak it. :) Thanks.

    "The fact is that at the Coming of Christ those Christians who remain on earth, Paul says that their bodies at the trumpet call will be changed from perishable to imperishable (1Cor 15:52-53). This will occur as we are caught up in the sky (1Thes 4:15-17)."

    Agreed.

    ReplyDelete
  5. "Ditto. Both were givens growing up but are in serious doubt now."

    Alright, a fellow traveler!

    "What do you think of the argument made here?"

    I'll check it out as soon as I get a chance. Thanks for the link.

    ReplyDelete
  6. "Your a Prewrath Rapturist and you don't even know it! :-)"

    Seems like I have a Prewrath Rapture book on a shelf around here somewhere. I'll have to look it over.

    " My recent article demonstrates the consistency between Jesus and Paul on the same future Parousia.

    Click here for article.

    Let me know your thoughts,
    Alan"


    Cool. I'll try to get to it soon.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I realize your paper was due today, but for an interesting alternative view, check out N.T. Wright's take on the Thessalonians passage in Jesus and the Victory of God. I don't know whether you're anti-other-Wright or not (seem to remember having an Ooze conversation about it, but can't remember your position), but his examination of the imagery in the passage is compelling.

    ReplyDelete
  8. "I realize your paper was due today, but for an interesting alternative view, check out N.T. Wright's take on the Thessalonians passage in Jesus and the Victory of God. I don't know whether you're anti-other-Wright or not (seem to remember having an Ooze conversation about it, but can't remember your position), but his examination of the imagery in the passage is compelling."

    Thanks for the reference. Honestly, I am not up to speed on NT Wright and his works so I try I not to comment on him too much. Peace.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Hey Jeff,

    I hope you do well on your paper. Not sure if you read my article yet, but let me know if you would like to discuss that.

    Indeed, 2Thess2 has made more ex-pretribbers than any other text in Scripture.

    Paul clearly places the gathering and the Coming of Christ after the persecution of the Antichirst figure. Paul is adamant that the Antichrist must occur first before the Coming of Christ. And yet pretribbers turn that text on its head.

    Witherington is correct in his point on the inconsistency of pretribbers (a point that prewrathers have been making for many years.)

    However, as far as I know, Witherington does not point out the most blistering inconsistency that the pretrib doctrine of imminence is negated by Paul's teaching that Antichrist and his persecution must come first (Being consistent with Jesus' teaching).

    Talk to ya later :-)
    Alan

    p.s The preterist position is also negated by two facts:


    1) In 2Th 2 Paul understands the lawless one as a real individual. (Unless someone changes their hermenuetic and spiritualizes the text.)

    2) That individual (aka "Antichrist") is destroyed at the Coming of Christ. So there is an Antichrist figure at the Coming of Christ, contra 70th AD.

    ReplyDelete
  10. My inaugural address at the Great White Throne Judgment of the Dead, after I have raptured out billions!
    Read My Inaugural Address
    My Site=http://www.angelfire.com/crazy/spaceman

    ReplyDelete
  11. "Read My Inaugural Address"

    Interesting. Have much time on your hands? That's quite a lot of work for a spoof piece. What inspired you to produce that?

    ReplyDelete
  12. My Inaugural Address was not a spoof piece -100% serious, however hard it may be for you to believe. Within months, if not years, billions are going to be dead by my hand. That's how serious I am!

    ReplyDelete
  13. My Inaugural Address was not a spoof piece -100% serious, however hard it may be for you to believe. Within months, if not years, billions are going to be dead by my hand. That's how serious I am!

    Interesting. So anyway...what brings you to my blog? Do a search for "rapture" or something else?

    ReplyDelete
  14. Bingo! I seached for "rapture" on Blogger, and have been systematically placing my comment on as many of the hits as possible. By the way, if you watch such fare on TV as 'Jericho', we are being prepared for the detonation I will soon set off.

    ReplyDelete