Trying to Get the Rapture Right (1)

I had been intending to write about the removal of the Church (the rapture) for quite a while now.  What galvanized me to do so now was a couple of entries by Ben Witherington and Roger Olson about the pretribulational rapture.  These men, (like them or not), do not usually write poorly, but their articles attacking the concept of the pretribulational rapture are pretty lame ducks, rehashing the same old populist presentations of Dispensationalism by sniping at Clarence Larkin’s charts, and bringing into the frame the names of Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye, only to mock them.

Now let me be clear about this, although I am a pretribultionist, I am not about to contend for the parity of the doctrine of the rapture and its timing with the doctrine of the Trinity, or justification by grace through faith.  I will not die on a hill fighting for the timing of the rapture, be it pre, mid, prewrath, or post – tribulational.

But something needs to be said.  Olson says he read Dwight Pentecost’s Things To Come when he was 19 or 20 and was unconvinced.  No problem.  But he also claims Pentecost’s book is about the rapture.  He says,

Seeds of doubt about the rapture were planted in my mind by a book that was supposed to offer biblical and theological support for it—Things to Come by dispensationalist theologian Dwight Pentecost. I read it when I was nineteen or twenty and sensed something was wrong. Why would it take hundreds of pages of convoluted exegesis and argument to establish something so simple?

The answer, as anyone familiar with the book is well aware, is “it wouldn’t and it didn’t”.  Pentecost wrote about Biblical Eschatology, which, as Olson knows, involves a good deal more than the rapture.  The trouble is (and I understand this), there is an almost visceral reaction to the populist presentations of the rapture by many – and Witherington and Olson are examples.

In a sense, I don’t blame them.  Books about prophecy from a pretrib perspective commonly come with covers sporting an eclipse (lunar or solar, either will do); sometimes a dragon or two.  Whole ministries exist to promulgate sometimes simplistic versions of Dispensational premillennialism, occasionally tainted with American exceptionalism.  When John Hagee writes about the “Four Blood Moons” we are not really surprised.  There is always a ready market for ‘signs of the times’ books and newspaper exegesis.  I distance myself from such things.  I distance myself a little even from those good men who can scarcely write an article about anything unless pretribulationism or pre-wrath or what-have-you has some space allotted to it.

Nevertheless, I am irritated a bit when Dispensationalism or pretribulationism is given short shrift by Christians because they think that if they can plaster the names of Lindsey or LaHaye over it they have have dealt with it.  To be fair to Olson he does share some of his experiences with the more vulgar expressions of the doctrine, but he never deals with the biblical arguments. He simply says it’s not biblical.  I wonder how he would react if Arminianism was dispatched in such a manner?

Witherington informs us (in this video) that Matthew 24 is one of the main proof-texts for the rapture.  That is surprising to hear since I know of scarcely any Dispensationalist who teaches that it is (actually I am open to a possible association with Rev. 14, but deny that it has anything to do with the rapture of the Church).  In point of fact, Dispensationalists nearly all teach precisely what Witherington teaches about the text!  How could he not know this?

Regarding 1 Thessalonians 4 Witherington says that it depicts a welcoming entourage who go out (or up) to meet the returning Christ before he reigns on earth.  This is a good interpretation and is one of the challenges to the pretribulational position.  It ought to be heeded though that this interpretation relies upon extra-biblical materials.

What I want to do in the coming weeks, though probably at intervals, is to set out some arguments for pretribulationism and compare them with the other positions on the rapture of the Church.  To help me to do this I will be making use of the Rules of Affinity, whereby I designate the doctrine of the rapture a C3 doctrine: that is, a doctrine which has no direct scriptural proof but which is an inference to the best explanation of the assorted data pertaining to the rapture which is found throughout the Bible.

The Meaning of Harpazo

To start things off we’ll take a quick look at the word from which we get the term “rapture.”  That way we can have a baseline to work from.

The Greek verb harpazo means “to snatch away, to seize, or steal (in the sense of grab)”.  Other than the central rapture text in 1 Thessalonians 4:17, harpazo is used in Acts 8:39 to refer to the relocation of Philip: “the Spirit of the Lord caught Philip away”.  It is also used by Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:2 and 4 to describe his (see 12:7) experience of being “caught up” to the third heaven.  We see it again in Revelation 12:5 of the male child (Christ) “who was to rule all nations” Who was “caught up to God and His throne”. In 1 Thessalonians 4:17 we read:

Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up (harpagesometha) together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.  And thus we shall always be with the Lord.

As the commentaries all recognize, the idea behind the verb implies force and suddenness.  The big question is, when will this snatching up occur?  That will be the question we’ll be considering in this series.

Part Two

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29 comments

  1. So glad you’re going to do this series!!! I am appalled at the sensationalism of prophecy books today. I think much of it is purely merchandising. And I fear that the area of biblical prophecy has become a cottage industry, and is shamefully diminished because of it. God bless!

      1. Just don’t use bright red colors and scary beasts on the cover (and make outlandish claims), do something scholarly looking, and I’m sure it will be fine:)

      2. Also, staying off the End Times Prophecy Book Shopping Channel will lend more credibility to your work:):):)

  2. While I have similar concerns regarding the sensationalism of Bible prophecy, it must be pointed out that, like it or not, images of astronomical events and beasts are not due to the creative license. Rather, they are the very symbols and events which God, the Spirit, chose in relating various important prophetic truths in Scripture.

    For example, I’m (too slowly) working on a commentary on the Book of Daniel. I fully expect to include imagery associated with chapter 7, just as I have for chapter 2. Do I get to pick the images? No: God has picked the imagery and whether I like it or not, some will see that as “sensationalism.” (In fact, a dear brother in the Lord who is gifted as an artist is producing a rendering for use in my work which will be unencumbered by the possibility of copyright violations and associated fees. A most difficult task, no doubt.)

    So I thing it does bear mentioning that some of the imagery that gets complaints is simply a byproduct of the work of the Holy Spirit and how He chose to relate certain passages.

    1. Dear one, with all due respect, I would be happy to read a book you’ve worked on slowly, but the writers I’m irritated with are the ones who come out with a NEW AND IMPROVED! edition every 3 to 6 months. It’s a prophecy book mill, my friend.

    2. I’ve been looking forward to that book, Tony. If it’s anything like your commentary on Revelation it will be well worth getting it. I’ve profited immensely from it and refer to it often.

      I think Vina is referring of the glaring imagery on the front cover of some of the current paperbacks written by people who have come up with their own special brand of prophetic insight.

    3. Tony,

      I agree that some of the imagery is from the text, but even a good thing can be given a slant that distorts it. I personally am not crazy about picturesque book covers. However, I believe prophecy books need to have more mellow covers.

      That said, most books on prophecy by Dispensationalists authored over the past generation are populist presentations. That too is a problem. I am happy to add that your own Revelation Commentary is a blessed exception!

      Your brother,

      Paul

  3. Just to clarify further: I’m in complete agreement with Dr. Henebury’s observations concerning the sensationalism of bible prophecy–and its unfortunate appeal to ears that want tickling. I also agree with Vina’s comment that “it is a prophecy book mill.” Publishers know what sells and there seem to be many believers who are more interested in Antichrist than Christ.

    My only intent was to caution that much (but by no means all) of the symbolism associated with Bible prophecy is a reflection of the biblical text itself. In a number of works, the appearance of these symbols is due to their use in the related prophetic passages–something which God ordained, not man.

    As others have observed, bible prophecy suffers at the hands of both friend and foe. Some friends treat it as a one-trick pony and detach it from the larger sweep of what God is doing (e.g., fulfillment of covenants, redemption of both spiritual and material domains). Others knowingly capitalize on it to build (and retain) large audiences or for commercial purposes–continually serving up what many sheep prefer: an unbalanced diet. Foes, on the other hand, want to find it fulfilled in the past by means of sloppy exegesis, hold it to be merely symbolic of the contest between darkness and light, or discount it entirely as being an unimportant part of God’s revelation.

    In my view, one of our tasks is to “walk the middle line” and avoid these extremes while upholding it as an essential (and voluminous) part of God’s Word. This is one reason I’m looking forward to the rest of what Dr. Henebury has to say going forward: the pre-trib rapture is not just grist for sensational prophecy speculators.

    1. Sorry I didn’t make this comment earlier, but, yes, your point about the biblical imagery is well taken. Thanks for that!

  4. Dr. Henebury,

    I am looking forward to this series.

    I must admit, that I have spent to much of my Christian life (in part due to the churches that I have been a part of) engaging in “newspaper exegesis” and reading “signs of the times” type of books. I have moved away from that over the past 2-3 years for both Biblical and historical reasons. Much of the popular writing takes scripture out of context and has a distorted view of history (especially concerning modern day Israel and America).

    Sadly, the rapture issue has become a very divisive one. There are many church organizations and denominations that insist that the pastors and teachers have a pre trib rapture position. I am sure the opposite is also true. There is also an incredible amount of unfortunate rhetoric directed toward those who hold a pre trib position these days. Both sides of the debate are guilty on this one.

    I recall a chapter in “The Rapture Question” by Walvoord that highlighted the unfortunate rhetoric in books debating this issue. Walvoord says:

    “One of the unfortunate features of the argument for posttribulationism is the general tendency toward the ad hominem type of debate in which attacks on the persons who hold the pretribulation position are substituted for solid argument from the Scriptures.”

    And further down:

    “Alexander Reese, who has produced the classic defense of posttribulationism, gave large space in his argument for invective against pretribulationists. Hogg and Vine in their analysis of Reese’s ad hominem argument summarized it as follows: “Mr. Reese does not seem to have made up his mind whether those whom he attacks so trenchantly are fools, or only knaves; his language, indeed, frequently suggests that they are both!”

    From what I have seen, things have not improved much in our day in many cases. What is it about this issue that brings out the worst in us? What will it take for us to move past this?

    I personally still believe the pre trib rapture position still best fits the Biblical data. There are some problem passages (2Thess 1:5-10 and 1Pet 1:7 for example), but these can be overcome.

    It will be educational to have the arguments for a pre trib rapture filtered through the “rules of affinity”. It am expecting this discussion should highlight the need for humility concerning our view.

    1. Hi Peter. I am 64 years old, and I have believed the Pre-Trib view since my early 20s. I’ve never seen a time like now when this belief has come under such attack, and by those in the Church, no less! One has to wonder: Where does this attack come from? I’d say Satan, since he seems to attack that which he fears most. Just my thoughts, for what they’re worth. God bless.

      1. Hi Vina,

        I agree. It is getting bad. I think it may be getting worse than the debate between Calvinist and Arminian.

        If the pre trib rapture turns out to be true, it would take a lot to convince others that they did not just witness “the rapture” if it was a popular well known doctrine. It would seem to make sense that the doctrine would wane in popularity as the moment draws near.

        To me, one of the more powerful arguments against a pre tribulational rapture is the lack of a Biblical description of what happens in the aftermath. This reminds me of a pamplet I read some time ago.

        In a pamphlet entitled “Plain Speaking on the Rapture Question” (1940), the Rev. Orson P. Jones put it like this:

        “Where in the entire Bible can you find a statement, or even a suggestion of the lifting out of this world of every living believer, leaving this ungodly world to pursue its business and pleasures? Passenger trains wrecked because the engineers have been translated! Empty caskets at funeral parlors! Children disappearing from school desks leaving only little heaps of clothes! If such a sensational, world-wide event might occur at an moment in the future, why would the apostles be silent? Why would such a stupendous affair be revealed only to men who can read between the lines? Men who teach this doctrine are positive that it is set forth in such passages as 1 Thessalonians 4;13-18; 1 Corinthians 15:50-55; Philippians 3:20, 21; and Titus 2:12, 13. In none of these passages is there a syllable suggesting that these events will take place before the tribulation; or that business will continue as usual after they occur.”

    2. Peter,

      I have read Reese and fully agree with what Walvoord, and Hogg & Vine said about him. He is simply obnoxious.

      I will be issuing these the posts here and there with other subjects I have in mind. I shall post Part 2 of this next week, although January is very busy this year!

      P

  5. It is great you will be looking at this issue in detail. Alas, the pre-trib rapture position is being viewed like country cousins at the picnic – lacking sophistication and not being up with the play.

    I noted your comment that scarcely any Dispensationalist teaches that Matt 24 refers to the rapture. You’ll be familiar with John Hart’s articles
    http://www.pre-trib.org/data/pdf/Hart-ADefenseoftheRapture.pdf
    http://www.faithalone.org/journal/2007ii/Hart%20-%20Pretrib%20Mt%2024%20Article%201%20edited.pdf
    http://www.faithalone.org/journal/2008i/Hart.pdf
    http://www.faithalone.org/journal/2008ii/Hart.pdf

    I’ve always been taught that the discourse refers to the second coming not the rapture but I have struggled with one issue. It appears difficult to see how the casual activity Jesus describes when he encourages watchfulness would be carried out when the world is in the last stages of tribulation. Hart raises this issue himself http://www.faithalone.org/journal/2008i/Hart.pdf

    “An unusually casual attitude toward life exists at the precise time when the tribulation judgments are being poured out in all their intensity (p. 47)…Many commentators simply believe that the ordinary life patterns described in the Noahic illustration can coexist with the colossal distresses that run their course prior to Christ‘s Second Coming. Normal pursuits will continue right up to Christ‘s return (p. 48)… The calamities that precede the Second Coming of Christ will be so severe that the human race will be close to extinction apart from the Lord‘s intervention (Matt 24:22). The real question concerning the days of Noah is this: Would Jesus use such a description of casual lifestyles to communicate what the world would be like when ―there will be a great tribulation, such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever shall‖ (Matt 24:21)? This seems most unlikely.” (p. 51).

    Pethaps this is something you could address further into your discussion?

    God bless

    1. Justin,

      You bring up an issue that bothers me too. I am not fully satisfied with either side of the debate concerning Mat 24:36-41. I lean toward the position presented below, but there are passages that give me pause. Luke 17:33-37 has always been a real mind bender.

      Maybe these comments from the new Moody Bible Commentary can add to the discussion?

      24:36-41. These verses answer the first question in 24:3c, “When will these things happen?” But (v. 36) is actually two words, “but concerning” (peri de; see the ESV), and frequently indicates a move to a new thought (Mt 22:31; Mk 12:26; 13:32; Ac 21:25; 1Co 7:1; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1, 12; 1Th 4:9, 13; 5:1). In this case the shift is away from the discussion of Jesus’ coming during those days (note the plural; see vv. 19, 22, 29) at the end of the tribulation (vv. 29-31) to the suddenness of the beginning of the day of the Lord (that day, v. 36—note the singular) including the rapture of the Church which commences it. Of that day [the day of the Lord; 1Th 5:4] and hour [used for end-time woes in Jn 16:21-22; Rv 3:10] no one knows is highly problematic for every eschatological school, for Jesus claims that one can know that His coming is near based upon observable signs (24:4-35, especially vv. 29-35), and yet says that no one can know that day and hour (vv. 36, 39, 42, 43, 44, 50 twice; 25:13) (for the issue, see Douglas J. Moo, “The Case for the Posttribulation Rapture Position,” in Gleason L. Archer, Jr., Paul D. Feinberg, Douglas J. Moo, and Richard R. Reiter, The Rapture: Pre-, Mid-, or Post-tribulational? [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1984], 209). The problem stems from the failure to note that the events of vv. 29-35 and vv. 36-44 are different events. The second coming will be recognizable (v. 33), but the beginning of the day of the Lord will be a complete surprise unknown to all (v. 36) (Robert L. Thomas, “Imminence in the NT, Especially Paul’s Thessalonian Epistles,” The Master’s Seminary Journal 13 [Fall 2002], 193; Hart, “Should Pretribulationists Reconsider the Rapture in Matthew 24:36-44? Part 1 of 3,” 71-74).

      (2014-03-15). The Moody Bible Commentary (Kindle Locations 61971-61984). Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.

      It will be “business as usual” in the world when Jesus returns, suggesting similar conditions before the flood and before the start of the day of the Lord (the tribulation), and the pretribulational rapture which designates its inception (v. 38; see the comments on 1Th 5:1-3). They did not understand (lit., “know,” v. 39) reflects the surprise coming of the day of the Lord (v. 36). The flood came and took them all away (v. 39) does not refer to Noah and his family being taken away safely by the ark. The plural pronouns and verbs in these verses relate to those who perished in the flood. In addition, Matthew’s the flood came and took [airo] them all way (v. 39) in Lk 17:27 is the flood came and destroyed them all, indicating that the rapture (whether pre- or post-tribulational) is not in view in v. 39. The verb will be taken (paralambano) in vv. 40-41 can have sinister overtones in Matthew (27:27; cf. also Jn 19:16). But it also has a positive sense, “to receive to one’s self, to take to safety”and in Jn 14:3 it is used in reference to the rapture of the Church. These points support the idea that the man and woman who are taken in vv. 40 and 41 are raptured out of the world before the start of the tribulation, just as Noah was taken out of harm’s way before the coming of the flood. The verb will be left (aphiemi) (vv. 40, 41), when used in reference to people in Matthew’s gospel, connotes abandonment (e.g., 4:11, 22; 8:15; 13:36; 19:29; 22:22, 25; 26:56), and in Jn 14:18 Jesus uses the verb to promise that He will never “abandon” believers. The man and woman who are left will face God’s wrath in the tribulation, just as those left on the earth in Noah’s day underwent God’s judgment in the flood. The separating of the righteous and unrighteous for judgment is a theme seen elsewhere in Matthew (cf. 8:12; 13:39-43, 49-50; 24:48-51; 25:30, 41-46). This passage, in connection with the transition in v. 36 (see the comments there) does not readily support the concept of a post-tribulational rapture (for a helpful treatment of the analogy of the flood and its relationship to the rapture and the tribulation, see John F. Hart, “Should Pretribulationists Reconsider the Rapture in Matthew 24:36-44? Part 2 of 3,” 45-63; and Hart, “Should Pretribulationists Reconsider the Rapture in Matthew 24:36-44? Part 3 of 3,” 43-49).

      (2014-03-15). The Moody Bible Commentary (Kindle Locations 62001-62011). Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.

      1. It is my view, as well, that the normative conditions explain the situation immediately prior to the “Day of the Lord” which comes as a thief (which is partly why it is so unexpected):

        For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. For when they say, ‘Peace and safety!‘ then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape.”(1Th. 5:2-3)

        But take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness, and cares of this life, and that Day come on you unexpectedly. For it will come as a snare on all those who dwell on the face of the whole earth. (Luke 21:34-35)

        But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up. Therefore, since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved, being on fire, and the elements will melt with fervent heat? (2Pe. 3:10-12)

        The thief metaphor has a negative connotation and should not be associated with the Rapture, but with the unexpected coming of judgment associated with the arrival of the day of the Lord.

        I believe the answer to understanding this is, in part, found in distinguishing between the arrival of the Day of the Lord (unexpected, unpredictable), when Jesus “comes as a thief” upon an unexpecting world) vs. His physical arrival at the second coming which culminates those judgments.

        . . . in Matt 24:36 He declared: “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.” Here Jesus is referring to the events of the Day of the Lord that culminate in His personal return to earth. Thus, this is an explicit statement that the Son does not know the day or the hour concerning the Day of the Lord’s arrival, but the Father alone does. — Michael J. Vlack, “The Trinity and Eschatology” in The Master’s Seminary Journal 24/2 (Fall 2013), 199-215, p. 207. [emphasis mine]

      2. Thanks for this Tony (sorry this response is late but I am a little run off my feet right now).

        I shall try to address this somewhat as I move forward. Right now I am trying to establish a place to stand as it were.

        God bless,

        Paul

      3. I totally agree with Tony’s comment re the seeming normative conditions prior to the Day of the Lord. I could never reconcile that with my posttribulationism. It bothered me that there was a seeming contradiction. I note that George N H Peters also raises this issue (V2 318). I’ll let the Greek Geeks battle out the full thrust of peri de. I don’t really think it changes much as the problem just doesn’t go away to my mind. I note that Thomas’ “Imminence” disagrees with Hart re locating the rapture after Matt 24:36 yet agrees that there’s some change of subject, which he ties in with 1 Thess 5:2-3. That makes sense to me.

  6. This may be a simpleton’s view, but I think the Days of Noah and the beginning of the Tribulation can be seen and explained best thru the view of a train wreck. There you sit, reading a paper, all’s going smoothly, then without any warning whatsoever, a cataclysm strikes — the train derails — and the sense of safety of life as you knew it ends.

    1. Yes Vina, I like that. What I think needs to be understood is the human ability to adapt and try to do business as usual. Although the Tribulation will be severe (I think more in the Middle East than anywhere else), the Coming of Christ will startle the “earth-dwellers”.

      God bless,

      Paul

  7. I’m familiar with Hart’s works, which is similar to Dr Fruchtenbaum’s views I believe. Some really good comments here. Looking forward to more of Paul’s input.

  8. Looking forward to your series on this subject. As of now I remain hopeful for a pre-trib rapture but open to the possibility of pre-wrath.

      1. Mr. Henebury,

        I look forward to reading your evaluation. I trust you have read primary literature on prewrath, unlike the vast majority of pretrib teachers who receive their information from secondary biased pretrib sources.

        Regards,

        Alan E. Kurschner

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