Doctrine of the Last Things (Part 2)
Transcript of William Lane Craig's Defenders 2 class.
We opened this section last time by looking at the biblical data concerning the return of Christ. We saw that in the Old Testament there was the expectation of a glorious messianic kingdom that would come to Earth by a sort of quasi-human-divine figure – the Son of Man. We saw that in the New Testament there is pervasive reference to the return of Christ especially in Jesus’ Olivet Discourse in Mark 13 and in Paul’s Thessalonian correspondence. We will be looking more in detail at those passages today so you may want to put a bookmark in 1 and 2 Thessalonians and then also in Mark 13.
Again, by way of review, we saw that there is a range of New Testament vocabulary for the return of Christ. It is alternatively called the parousia which refers to the coming or the presence of the Lord, or apokalupsis which is the revelation of the Lord, or epiphaneia which is the appearing of the Lord.
The question that we want to address this morning is the question: Is there going to be one return of Christ or many? Is Christ going to return simply one time or he is going to return multiple times? There are a variety of views as you might well anticipate on this question among Christians.
Let’s first talk about what I’ll call the rapture view. According to this view there is going to be an invisible return of Christ to snatch away believers before the final visible return of Christ to establish his Kingdom. This invisible return of Christ – or rapture – is to rescue Christians from the Great Tribulation that we saw Jesus predicted in his Olivet Discourse.
This position, I’m sure, is very familiar to most of us, but it must be said that this is not the historic position of the Christian church. In fact, this view is one of relatively recent origin dating to a man named John Darby in 1827. So this view is sometimes called Darbyism after the originator of this interpretation. This view has been exceedingly influential in the evangelical church because of its endorsement by the famous Scofield Reference Bible. The use of the Scofield Reference Bible in fundamentalist and evangelical churches helped to promote this view of the rapture. Moreover, Dallas Theological Seminary, which is one of the flagship evangelical seminaries, is committed to this interpretation as well. Through the many pastors that it has trained and placed in American evangelical churches this view has become very widespread. Finally, the view has become enormously popular in pop culture through the writings of authors like Hal Lindsey, The Late Great Planet Earth (which some of you will remember), or more recently the series by Tim LaHaye called Left Behind which has been a runaway best seller. Because of the influence of these factors in the evangelical church and in popular culture, many of us never know of any other view than this rapture view. In fact, I would say that for many of us who have been raised in Christian homes or Christian churches we’ve absorbed this view with our mother’s milk and have never really thought to examine its biblical credentials to see if this is actually a biblical view and to assess the question whether the historic Christian church has for eighteen centuries been in error in thinking that there is but one return of Christ and it isn’t preceded by this invisible return in which he snatches believers out of the world.
So let’s examine the biblical basis for this view. Turning to the Olivet Discourse in Mark 13 which we read last time, I think in all candor we have to say you would never guess from Jesus’ Olivet Discourse on the course of the end times that there is going to be an invisible return of Christ to rapture believers out of the world and extract them prior to the tribulation or at any other time for that matter. Look at Mark 13:19-20, 24-27. Jesus says,
For in those days there will be such tribulation as has not been from the beginning of the creation which God created until now, and never will be. And if the Lord had not shortened the days, no human being would be saved; but for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he shortened the days.
There is no suggestion here that the elect are going to be snatched out of the world and spared from this Great Tribulation that Jesus here predicts. Then in verses 24-27 he says,
But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
Notice that this gathering of the elect that will occur when the Son of Man returns is a visible event. This is not some secret return of Christ invisible to the eye. They will see the Son of Man returning on the clouds with power and great glory and then he will gather the elect. This takes place after the tribulation and is clearly a visible event that people will see and experience.
So there is nothing in this Olivet Discourse, I think we have to say, that would suggest the idea of a secret rapture of the church prior to the return of the Son of Man to gather the elect and establish his kingdom.
So you might ask: Where does this idea come from? If it doesn’t come from the Olivet Discourse, where does this idea of a rapture of the church come from? Well, it comes from 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17. There Paul writes,
For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord.
The interpretation is that this is describing this rapture in which the elect will be snatched out of the world, taken up into the clouds to be with Christ, and so will be with him forever.
But is that in fact what this passage is describing? I don’t see any reason to think that what Paul here describes is a distinct event from the Second Coming of Christ. There is no hint in the Olivet Discourse, you will remember, of any sort of a secret coming of Christ prior to the visible return of the Son of Man and the resurrection of the dead. Paul’s teaching is obviously based on Jesus’ teaching. It is reflected in the Thessalonian letters. So why would we see this passage as teaching something different than Jesus taught about the return of the Son of Man?
What about the expression “meeting the Lord in the air?” The Greek word here is apantesis. In Greek literature this word is used to describe the going out of the people to meet a returning dignitary to his city and to welcome him back into the city. Apantesis is the going out and welcoming of this returning hero or figure to his rightful domain. This is what is described in 1 Thessalonians. Christ is returning and the elect will be transformed and rise, taken up to meet him and welcome him when he comes back. Look at Mark 13:27, back to the Olivet Discourse. This is, I think, the same event that is described in Mark 13:27: “And then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” What Paul is talking about is exactly this – that the Son of Man, when he returns, will gather the elect and, as Paul says, they will rise to meet him and welcome him back on his return.
Also notice that this event is the time of the resurrection of the dead. 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17a says,
For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them . . .
So this event is the event of the resurrection of the dead. It is the eschatological, end-time resurrection toward which we look. This is not a secret snatching of the elect out of the world. Rather, this is the final resurrection of the dead. Compare this to what Jesus says in John 5:25-29. Jesus says,
“Truly, truly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself, and has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of man.
[The passage begins with the “Son of God” but then here it refers to this figure that we talked about in Daniel 7, the “Son of Man” who will execute judgment.]
Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.
Here Jesus says that when he comes again as the Son of Man, both the righteous dead and the unrighteous dead will rise from the dead for judgment.
Compare this with 1 Corinthians 15:51-55 where you have some of the very same language that we saw in 1 Thessalonians with regard to the trumpet of God and the resurrection of the dead. Paul says,
Lo! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is thy victory?
O death, where is thy sting?”
Here Paul describes how death will be vanquished finally at the return of Christ when the dead in Christ will be raised and then those who are alive who do not sleep will similarly be changed and be transformed into their resurrection bodies to live with Christ forever, exactly as Paul describes in 1 Thessalonians 4.
Notice that this moment of the resurrection is the destruction of death. This is the end of death. There will be no more death after this. Death is destroyed. Look at 1 Corinthians 15:22-26. Paul says,
For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.
[Christ’s resurrection has already taken place in advance – he is the first fruits of the harvest. But “then at his coming those who belong to Christ.”]
Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
So at the Second Coming of Christ, the dead shall be raised, both righteous and unrighteous, for judgment. Those who are alive will be transformed into their resurrection bodies, and death will be finally destroyed, the final enemy. This is, I think, the event that is being described in 1 Thessalonians 4, not some sort of secret rapture of the church.
Look also at Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians which, I think, cements this understanding. 2 Thessalonians 2:1-8. Here Paul is describing the same event that he talked about in his first letter to the Thessalonians. He says,
Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our assembling to meet him,
[which was what he wrote them about in 1 Thessalonians 4-5]
we beg you, brethren, not to be quickly shaken in mind or excited, either by spirit or by word, or by letter purporting to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God. Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you this? And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, and the Lord Jesus will slay him with the breath of his mouth and destroy him by his appearing and his coming.
Here Paul is talking about the return of Christ and our assembling to meet him and assuring the Thessalonians that certain events have to take place first before this final event will occur. This is, as I say, the same event described in 1 Thessalonians 4. The vocabulary is the same. In 1 Thessalonians 4:15 Paul refers to the parousia. He says, “until the coming of the Lord.” Until the parousia when Christ comes again. Then in 2 Thessalonians 2:1 he says, “Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Again, that is the parousia. So the vocabulary is the same. It is the same event. He is talking about the parousia – the return of Christ.
Notice that that event does not happen until the events described in the Olivet Discourse occur. All of those events that Jesus describes in Mark 13 have to happen first and then will be the parousia – the coming of the Son of Man. So go back to Mark 13 again and look at verse 14. There Jesus warns, “But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.” Compare that with 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4 where Paul says,
. . . that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God.
Here Paul describes this man of lawlessness in similar terms to what Jesus predicts concerning this desolating sacrifice or abomination of desolation that will be set up. So this is something that will occur after that happens.
Also, notice the gathering that Jesus refers to in Mark 13:27: “And then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” This gathering is the same event that Paul is talking about in 2 Thessalonians 2:1 where he says, “Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our assembling to meet him.” The verb that Jesus uses is episunago – “he will gather the elect from the four corners of the Earth.” Then in 2 Thessalonians 2:1 Paul uses the noun form episunagoge – “our gathering to meet him” or “our assembling to meet him.” So the event that Jesus describes in Mark 13:27 where the angels go out and gather the elect to be with Christ – with the Son of Man – is the same word that Paul uses to describe the parousia of Christ – the coming of Christ – and our assembling or gathering to meet him.
So it seems to me that the biblical basis for thinking that there is some sort of an invisible return of Christ that is going to precede Christ’s visible glorious return at the resurrection of the dead and the Judgment Day just doesn’t have any biblical basis at all. It seems to me that there are no grounds for thinking there is such an event as John Darby and others have imagined.
Question: I know there is quite vigorous debate about Calvinism versus Arminianism among evangelicals but I am not aware of any debate about this topic so much among evangelicals. Is there debate about this? And if it is not right, does it rise to the level of heresy?
Answer: Oh, no! Of course not. I would never, ever suggest that someone who believes in the rapture is a heretic or not going to heaven. I think we need to be very careful about our words. A heretic is someone who has a doctrinal error so serious that it separates him from salvation. When you think about that, the bar is pretty low. I mean, it is pretty hard to be a heretic in that sense. You would have to deny something like the deity of Christ or his death on the cross for our sins or something of that sort. But getting it wrong about the rapture versus the Second Coming doesn’t even approximate an error that serious.
Yes, the first part, there certainly is debate about this. Reformed churches, mainline Protestants don’t accept this rapture view. Neither do Catholics or Orthodox. This is a view that is widespread in the evangelical subculture, and it is just our lack of familiarity with these other views that leads us to accept it almost unthinkingly. I remember many years ago when Jan and I were at a Campus Crusade for Christ conference. This was when Hal Lindsey’s book Late Great Planet Earth was big. And I noticed that it wasn’t for sale on the book table at the conference. I spoke to the fellow who was running the book table who was Reformed in his theology. I said, “Marty, why isn’t Hal Lindsey’s book on the book table?” And he said, “Because we don’t sell fiction.” [laughter] That rather took me aback because I had just accepted this sort of rapture view. I never questioned it. I thought, “Gosh, here is this fellow, a staff member with Crusade whom I respect, and he thinks of it as fiction.” I think that was, for me, the first time I had ever really asked myself, “What is the biblical basis for this?”
Question: Where do I begin? The Gospel writers did not address the rapture. Why? If you look at Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and all you do is you circle the “you’s,” you will find out he was speaking to Jews. He was speaking to Jews. Their history pretty much ended at 70 AD but it is going to be taken up again during Daniel’s 70th week. But all in that interim is called the Times of the Gentiles – the time when Jerusalem would be trampled under. Paul called the rapture a mystery.
Answer: Where does he do that?
Followup: In 1 Corinthians 15.
Answer: Well, now, that is assuming that that is referring to the rapture, right?
Followup: “I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.” That is when this is going to happen.
Answer: Now, wait. Let me ask you a question. Do you think then that at the rapture the dead are going to be raised – all the graves are going to be emptied?
Followup: Yes. There was a type of that that occurred at the crucifixion where you had graves opened. We’ve seen this before.
Answer: So you think there is going to be a resurrection of all of the dead . . .
Followup: Yes, the dead in Christ. Not all the dead – “in Christ.” He makes it very specific – “in Christ.” Those who are raised in both Revelation 5 and 6 (or 6 and 7), you have the souls under the altar. Then you have the great multitude. There will be believers coming out of the tribulation period. That is kind of a misnomer. It is Daniel’s 70th week, the last seven years of history. Great tribulation is the last three and a half years. Daniel calls it “the time of great distress.” In getting back to your resurrection of Old Testament saints – that is covered in Daniel 12 when at the end of the tribulation, God will raise the Old Testament saints from the dead. We know that from Daniel. But the raptured church is going to come out of here. Why did he write 1 Thessalonians? Because a lot of the people that the Thessalonians knew had died and they were very worried about them. What is going to happen to them when Jesus comes back? So Paul gives them 1 Thessalonians that tells them about the rapture of the church. In Thessalonians 2 they are worried . . .
Answer: But you are assuming that it is about the rapture of the church. Isn’t he giving them assurance that those who have fallen asleep in Christ haven’t perished, they are with Christ, and they will come back again with him when Christ returns?
Followup: Right, but he says in 1 Thessalonians 1:10 that we are saved from the wrath to come. He then talks about the rapture. He said it was a mystery. It is something that was not given in the Old Testament. It is something that was brought. It was a new thing that was given to the church.
Answer: Wait, though. You are going so quickly.
Followup: I have to, Bill, I have so much to say. [laughter]
Answer: Look at 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10, “to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.”
Followup: Yeah! For the rapture! For the rapture!
Answer: But why would you read that into that verse rather than saying he is going to deliver us from the final judgment? Jesus has been raised from the dead; we will be raised from the dead.
Followup: Because the day of the Lord is a day of wrath. We know that from the Old Testament, from books like Joel. The day of the Lord is a day of wrath. We also know the day of wrath from Thessalonians begins when the antichrist takes his stand in the temple. Remember he said the day of wrath is not going to come until the restrainer is removed, and the guy is going to stand in the temple and claim to be God and the apostasy comes. By the way, I truly believe the apostasy is when the Jews say that antichrist is Christ. That is the great falling away. That is what the apostasy is. Apostasy is not a technical term. If I let go of Brad, the New Testament uses that word as “I apostatized.”
Answer: Let’s not get off the track here. We are talking about whether or not there is a rapture distinct from the return of the Son of Man at the end.
Followup: So we’ve got the day of the Lord coming. So in 2 Thessalonians, they are all upset because they think they are in the day of the Lord. That is why they are upset. They think – we missed the rapture! He didn’t come. We are in it. And he goes, no, no, no. The day of the Lord is not going to come until you have the antichrist standing in the temple, until you have the restrainer removed, until you have the apostasy. It is not here yet. Don’t get all crazy about this.
Answer: Right. That is clear.
Followup: Why were they upset? If they were living in the time of the day of the Lord, if they believed that what Paul referred to was the Second Coming, they would be rejoicing and say our salvation is near. They were upset because they believed they had missed the in-gathering – the rapture – and they are going through the wrath, and he already said you are not going to go through the wrath.
Question: The “day of the Lord” is a technical term that has at least six meanings. I think the meaning here in 2 Thessalonians 2 is the seven-year tribulation period. Now, where did that come from? It came from Daniel 9 where it says there are seventy sevens given to complete six goals for the Jewish people. 483 have been taken up in what I think is the most remarkable prophecy in the Bible, which we won’t get off on that. But the point is there are seven years left. I’ll agree: if they had been taught a post-tribulation rapture, why would they be upset? They were obviously taught that they were going to be removed in the day of the Lord and that seven years had begun and they missed the rapture. What is the sequence? The restrainer, which almost everybody thinks is the Holy Spirit (it is hard to imagine another entity other than the Holy Spirit), is removed. I take that as the rapture of the church. When that happens here in 2 Thessalonians 2:8 the man of lawlessness, which was first mentioned in Daniel 9, is revealed. How is he revealed? Because he makes a treaty with Israel that lasts seven years. That is Daniel 9:27. So here is the sequence. The restrainer is removed, which I think is the rapture of the church, and the man of lawlessness (i.e. the antichrist) identifies himself by making that seven-year treaty and the day of the Lord begins. These people were very upset because Paul had obviously taught them that they would not have to go through the day of the Lord. Why else would they be worried? If they had been taught a post-tribulation rapture (i.e. the rapture right at the time of Christ’s second return) then they should be OK with it.
Answer: The argument that I am hearing here is that we must think that there was a rapture taught by Paul because otherwise these assurances to the Thessalonians don’t make sense. But, and I am looking now for the verse and I can’t find it – I think it is in the correspondence with Timothy – where Paul refers to certain heretics in the early church who had said that the resurrection had passed already. They seemed to be thinking that there is some kind of a spiritual resurrection that has already occurred and they are upsetting the faith of some, Paul says. I think that that would be an equally plausible explanation for what Paul is trying to correct here. It is that the resurrection hasn’t taken place yet.
Followup: There is a distinction between Christ’s Second Coming – which is what I think is referred to in the Olivet Discourse. He was talking to Jews. There was no church at that time. He was talking to Jewish men. The Second Coming is like a lightning from the East to the West. It will be unmistakable. He says unmistakable to everybody on Earth. Now, the rapture is a very private thing.
Answer: Right, but the question is why think that there is such a rapture? The only argument that I’ve heard so far is that in 2 Thessalonians he wouldn’t be assuring them that these events haven’t passed already if he weren’t talking about a rapture. And I can understand how that would make sense. You can read that into the passage if you kind of impose that on it. But when you look at the vocabulary, as I said, he is talking about the same event as in that Olivet Discourse and is in 1 Thessalonians, and it would make equally good sense of the passage to say that someone has communicated to them this idea that was being propagated in the early church that the resurrection has passed already as some sort of a spiritual event and not a physical event. Paul is correcting that. That would be an equally plausible explanation.
Followup: The purposes of the rapture are totally different from the purposes of the Second Coming.
Answer: If there is such a thing as the rapture.
Followup: But in the passages from 1 Corinthians 15, 2 Thessalonians, can’t you see that these are totally different situations? Believers are called up to him – to meet him in the air. He does not touch down, as he does when he comes back. The rapture concerns only the church whereas the Second Coming . . .
Answer: That is what I am questioning. I am questioning with the historic Christian church that there is such a special event as the rapture that singles out the church as opposed to everybody. You never see that in the Olivet Discourse. You’d never guess that. It is only by imposing this interpretation on 1 and 2 Thessalonians that it seems to me that you can get such a separate event for the church.
Followup: The church didn’t exist in the Olivet Discourse. He couldn’t explain it to these Jewish men . . .
Answer: But he’s talking about the end times. He talks in the Olivet Discourse about how the angels will go out and they will gather the elect to be with Christ. It is the same word that Paul uses when he talking about our assembling to meet him. Paul is echoing the teachings of Jesus here.
Followup: Parousia can be used for either the rapture or, the ones who believe as I do (pre-tribulation), it can be used for either . . .
All right! Well, we are out of time but we can continue this discussion next time. I knew this would be controversial, but I think it is good, just as we exposed folks to different views on the Lord’s Supper and the real presence, to expose ourselves to other views of the Second Coming of Christ and eschatology.
 “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. Avoid such godless chatter, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will eat its way like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth by holding that the resurrection is past already. They are upsetting the faith of some” (2 Timothy 2:15-18).
 Total Running Time: 38:32 (Copyright © 2014 William Lane Craig)