Beyond Dispensationalism #5
When I was 19 years old in October 1996 at the King’s College, I believed in the pre-tribulation rapture of the saints. When I was 19 years old in December 1966, I no longer believed this. What happened? It was very simple. I learned in Dr. Thomas McComiskey’s Bible Doctrine class, in a section on hermeneutics or interpreting Bible texts, that we must interpret verses in the context of chapters, chapters in the context of whole books of the Bible, and whole books in the context of the whole Bible. Dr. McComiskey became a very highly regarded Old Testament scholar and later taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School north of Chicago. He also came to the post-tribulation rapture view. My best friend was studying under Dr. William Bell, a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary, the intellectual center of Dispensationalism and pre-tribulation rapture theology. My friend was now transitioning from the pre-tribulation to the post-tribulation view. I thought he was falling from grace. I decided to study all the major Bible texts on this but especially to look into the context. Dr. Bell used to say, “Read the Rapture Question by John Walvoord, and The Blessed Hope, by George Ladd, and see which you think is more convincing. Before I read the books, I did a text study. I pulled out pro-pre-tribulation study Bibles, Schofield, Dake’s, and Thompson’s. As I looked at the primary proof texts I was amazed. It was clear to me that the texts did not say what was being claimed. Some even implied just the opposite view, the post-tribulation view.
One of the most amazing aspects of my study was that the people who professed to be committed to a literal interpretation of the texts of the Bible built this doctrine on analogical non-literal meanings from texts. There are many texts that are used to bolster the argument through allusions, analogies, and hints. I only want to deal with a few of the most foundational texts.
II Thes. 2:1-9 is a key text for the pre-tribulation argument. I Thes. 4:16, 17 speaks about the rapture and the resurrection but is not a proof text for the pre-tribulation people since there are no timing references. II Thes. 2 is about “The coming of our LORD Yeshua the Messiah and our gathering together to Him.” It continues, “Not to get shaken out of your mind or disturbed—either by a spirit or a word or letter as if through us—as though the Day of the LORD has come. Let no one deceive you in any way, for the Day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the one destined to be destroyed.”
The pre-tribulation interpretation says that the rapture has not occurred because if it had, you would now be seeing the man of lawlessness (the Anti-Christ). The text says just the opposite. It says the man of lawlessness will be revealed before the rapture. The pre-tribulation doctrine teaches that Yeshua can come any moment, that there is no prophecy that must take place before his coming. All of the prophecies that are to take place before his Second Coming landing on earth can take place during the seven-year Tribulation. (By the way, the great tribulation is explicitly described as 3 ½ years in the Bible, not 7 as in Dispensationalism). So, how was it that Dispensationalists had prophecy conferences to show that His coming was near? Because these are “signs of the times” showing a lining up of what will be taking place in the tribulation that is taking place before the tribulation. One can see preparations before the rapture in this view. However, the II Thes. text joins the Day of the LORD, God’s ultimate judgment and intervention with our being gathered together to Him as being together with the Day of judgment first. The Day has not come nor has the rapture. Both await that revelation of the man of lawlessness. This is profoundly contrary to the pre-tribulation doctrine. (See Mike Brown and Craig Keener, Not Afraid of the Anti-Christ.)
The second proof text is also from II Thessalonians 2:5-8a. It states that “The mystery of lawlessness is already at work,” but they know what holds him back, for him to be revealed in his own time.” The TLV translates, “There is one who holds back just now until he is taken out of the way.” In a strange conclusion, it is said that the presence of the Church holds him back and will be taken out in the rapture. Then the Anti-Christ will be revealed. Historically, before J. N. Darby, no one ever thought this was the Church. Paul could have said, “You know that your presence, the presence of the Church holds him back.” He did not say that. One very common view is that human order and government by God’s common grace holds him back or that God holds him back until the work of the Gospel has progressed to the point that the final battle can be enjoined. One interpretation comes from the Concordat Literal Translation that changes the whole sense to the Devil restraining and resisting the Gospel until he is taken out of the way. Then it goes on to explain that in the time of his full manifestation, he will be taken out of the way. With such a text so capable of other good interpretations, it is strange to dogmatically hold that it is about the rapture of the Church. It does not fit the context of the preceding verses that the Antichrist is first revealed.
Such an interpretation does not cohere with the three Synoptic Gospels and Yeshua’s presentation of his return as one event with no rapture seven years before (Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21).
The next texts are examples of non-literal interpretation. With no warrant in the text, the interpreter states that the 7 churches of Rev. 2, and 3 represent ages in Church history. Again, there is no warrant for this in the text, but we see these churches as seven churches of Asia Minor, today’s western Turkey, a literal interpretation! We are told that the Philadelphia Church is the sixth age of the Church just before his coming. (This was interpreted as the present church of that time). It is the one most commended. In 3:10, 11a we read, “Because you have kept My word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming upon the whole world to test those who dwell on the earth. Behold I am coming soon.”
The church that follows is the Laodicean Church that will not be raptured but because they are unsaved, they will remain for the tribulation, the seventh period. There is nothing in the text supporting this interpretation. Not only so, but they are told to repent so they might receive a reward. There is nothing in the text about their exceptionally entering the tribulation.
With regard to the Philadelphia Church, to be kept from the hour of trial is protection in the midst of the trial that is coming, not to be raptured out. Big trials did come at that time. One can only get the pre-tribulation rapture by a church ages theory imposed on the text about literal churches that existed in the first century. There is no basis in the text. The supposed literalist finds a non-literal meaning in the text and stakes his interpretation on it.
It is the same with Revelation 4:1. A voice speaks with John like a trumpet and says, “Come up here.” This is analogous to the rapture and points to it. Thus, for the pre-tribulation rapture person all that takes place in the book of Revelation from the end of the Philadelphia Church period to Rev. 19 and the return of Yeshua, takes place without the presence of the Church. The saints in the book are not the Church but new tribulation saints, from Israel and the nations in a new start-over (Rev. 7). Dispensationalists spent countless hours in prophecy conferences preaching and interpreting the book of Revelation so that all could understand all the events that would take place when we are no longer here and cannot do anything about it (signs of the times teaching).
These are the most foundational texts. The many other texts with hints, analogies, and allusions are even more far-fetched. When this doctrine finally falls, so will the Dispensational Theology System. Many Progressive Dispensationalists have left much of the dispensational system and its interpretations, but the pre-tribulation rapture is still maintained. It has been so drummed in and ingrained, it is hard to let go. It was hard for me to let go.