William Lane Craig CV


Doctrine of the Last Things (Part 3)

Transcript of William Lane Craig's Defenders 2 class.

We are talking about eschatology (or the Doctrine of the Last Things), and the last time we met we broached the question as to whether there will be a single return of Christ to the Earth or multiple returns of Christ. We began to look at one of the most prominent (in evangelical circles, at least) multiple views, namely, the Rapture view which says that prior to Christ’s final advent to establish his Kingdom and judge the world there will be an invisible return of Christ to snatch away out of the world his elect and take them to be with him in heaven. I argued that this view is very difficult to square with the scriptural teachings on the Second Coming of Christ. When you look at the passages, especially the Olivet Discourse given by Jesus but also Paul’s Thessalonian correspondence, there is simply no reason to think that there is such an event as a rapture prior to the Second Coming of Christ. Certainly one can read these things into the text, but I don’t think one will naturally read them out of the text. We want to read out of the text what the text says – that is exegesis. If you read things into the text, that is eisegesis. That is reading between the lines. And before you can read between the lines you’ve got to learn to read the lines. I don’t think that there is any good reason to think that in any of these discussions Paul is referring to a rapture event.

Let’s continue our discussion of this from last time. Last time, some persons suggested that in 2 Thessalonians 2 there is, at least implicitly, the teaching of a rapture based upon what the heretics were saying to the Thessalonian believers. Let’s turn to 2 Thessalonians 2 and look again at this passage. In 2 Thessalonians 2:1-2 Paul says,

Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our assembling to meet him, 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.

Paul goes on to explain that that day will not yet come until quite a number of things take place first.

We face here a methodological problem in that it is very difficult to reconstruct the teaching of Paul’s opponents. We don’t have the writings of these opponents and very rarely even have quotations from them. So it is difficult to know exactly what it was that Paul’s opponents were teaching. For example, in Corinth there is a great deal of discussion among New Testament scholars as to exactly who the opponents of Paul were in Corinth and what it was that they were teaching. Therefore, any attempt to reconstruct the teaching of the persons that Paul is opposing is by its very nature speculative. It is going to be conjectural.

The question that we face here is what is meant by this expression “the day of the Lord” where Paul says don’t be shaken or excited from anyone telling you that the day of the Lord has come. Whatever the Old Testament meaning of this expression may have been, it is clear that Paul interprets this expression Christologically. That is to say, Paul takes the day of the Lord to be the day of Christ’s return. It will be on that day that Christ returns, the dead are raised, the dead are judged, and particularly the wicked or unrighteous dead are judged.

In saying this, Paul is following the teaching of Jesus as given in the Olivet Discourse. Turn to Matthew 24:42-44.[1] In Matthew’s version of the Olivet Discourse we have this saying of Jesus,

Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the householder had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have watched and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect.

Here he is talking about the coming of the Son of Man which will be a visible worldwide event to gather the elect and take them into his Kingdom. Jesus says it is going to come like a thief in the night. Now, turn over to Paul’s Thessalonian correspondence – 1 Thessalonians 5:1-2, 4. You can see how Paul echoes this phraseology of Jesus. He says, “But as to the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” Here Paul refers to the day of the Lord in the same way as Jesus did – as coming like a thief in the night. Then in verse 4, “But you are not in darkness, brethren, for that day to surprise you like a thief.” Here Paul is echoing the teaching of Jesus with respect to his Second Coming. Now turn over to 2 Thessalonians 1:9-10. Paul refers to this day again. Talking about the unrighteous, he says,

They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at in all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.

Here Paul again is referring to that day when Christ will come again. He will inflict vengeance upon the unrighteous dead and be marveled at and be glorified in his church. Then in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-2 Paul goes on to say,

Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our assembling to meet him, 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.

Here it is consistent that Paul is talking about that day of the Lord as being the return of Christ – the Second Advent of Christ. This is the same way that Paul uses the expression in other letters. For example, in 1 Corinthians 1:7-8 he says,

so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing

[That is the other word we saw that is often used instead of parousia – the “revealing” or apokalupsis.]

of our Lord Jesus Christ; who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Here you see his Christological interpretation of the phrase “the day of the Lord.” It is not just the day of the Lord; it is the day of “our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Similarly over in 1 Corinthians 5:4-5 he talks here about a man who he has put under discipline in the church of Corinth because of the immoral lifestyle he was leading. What Paul says is, “When you are assembled, and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” That is that day when Christ will be revealed and when he will come again.

So I think that when Paul uses this expression “the day of the Lord” and wants to assure the Thessalonians it has not yet come, he is talking about the Second Advent of Christ – the return of Christ.

Now, ask yourself: do we have in the New Testament anywhere references to people who were teaching that the day of the Lord had come? That the Second Coming of Christ had already occurred?[2] Is there any place in the New Testament like that? Well, yes, there is. I alluded to it last time – 2 Timothy 2:15-19. There Paul talks about these persons that are teaching godlessness and unsound doctrine. He says in verse 17, “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.” So here are people who taught this bizarre doctrine that the resurrection has already past. Since the day of the resurrection is the day of Christ’s return, in effect they were saying the Second Advent has already occurred and the resurrection is past already. Now, obviously they could not have meant this in a literal sense. The graves would be emptied if the resurrection were past already. There wouldn’t be any corpses. So they must have meant this in some sort of a spiritualizing sense. We know that Gnosticism was a threat in the early church. It was a Greek doctrine which depreciated the value of the material and exalted the value of the spiritual. It could very well be that there are some kind of Gnostic teachers here that are saying that the resurrection is not a physical, bodily event but it is a sort of spiritual event and it has already past. We know from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that in Corinth there were people who objected to this idea of a physical resurrection. Therefore, Paul goes to great lengths in chapter 15 to answer the question: With what kind of a body do people who are raised from the dead come? What sort of body is it that they have? Because for the Greek mentality the idea of the resurrection of the body was disgusting and revolting. It was the spirit or the soul that was to be preserved and be immortal. So it could be that what Paul is confronting here in Thessalonica would be something similar, some kind of Gnostic teaching that the resurrection and the day of the Lord has already past. What he wants to say to them is that this is not true. A lot has to happen yet before the day of the Lord will occur. I see no reason to think that the Thessalonians had fear that, say, the rapture had already occurred and they had missed it. There just isn’t anything in this passage to suggest that the problem here is either that the rapture occurred and they were left behind or that it didn’t occur as they had expected and now they were in the last days. If the rapture had actually occurred, Paul would be gone and not writing to them. They would know that the graves are empty. So, I just don’t see any reason to read into this any sort of rapture doctrine.

Having said that, again as I say, this is conjectural. We don’t know what Paul’s opponents in Thessalonica were saying. But it is possible that they were not saying that the Second Advent of Christ and the resurrection had already occurred. It might mean, by this expression, that it is “present.” That is to say, the Greek word here, which is enistemi, means “to be present, to arrive.” It could be that what the Thessalonian heretics were saying was that the day of the Lord is present. It has arrived. This word enistemi can even mean “be imminent.” So they are saying the day of the Lord is imminent; it is almost upon us. And what Paul is saying is: No, no, that is not right – it is still a good ways off and a lot has to happen first. But perhaps they thought the day of the Lord was just around the corner, it was imminent, and therefore they were living in the last days. Paul wants to correct that error. But there is nothing in the passage to suggest that they thought the rapture was near or that it was past or that it failed to take place.[3]

Whatever Paul’s opponents were teaching in Thessalonica – whether they were saying the return of Christ is already past or whether they were saying it is about to happen or it’s imminent – Paul’s teaching, at least, is clear. If we don’t know what his opponents taught clearly, we do know what Paul taught. And what Paul says is: Christ’s return is still a good way off. A lot of things have got to happen first. Therefore, the day of the Lord, the return of Christ, is neither past nor imminent. It still lies sometime into the future.

I say all that in response to the discussion with which we ended the class last time. Let me now re-open that discussion and invite you to give your response.


Question: Is there not reference in the book of Acts to the actual day of Christ’s crucifixion when it says the temple curtain was torn in two, there was a great earthquake, and graves were opened, and people were raised?

Answer: That is in Matthew.

Followup: OK, that is in Matthew. And it says, “Some of you have seen that.”

Answer: Matthew reports that they were seen in Jerusalem – these Old Testament saints that had been raised at the time of the crucifixion.

Followup: Could that not be what Paul was referring to when he said it hasn’t come yet but the people knew that people had seen people raised from the grave? Wouldn’t that have given them pause to think, “Oh, it’s over.”?

Answer: We don’t know the sources of the error in Thessalonica. I highly doubt that it is from reports that are peculiar to Matthew’s Gospel about the resurrection of these Old Testament saints. I don’t think that is referred to anywhere else in the New Testament. So we don’t know what prompted the Thessalonians to think this. I think we just don’t have enough information.

Question: Just trying to follow the discussion. In 1 Thessalonians 5:1-2 Paul tells the Thessalonians that there is no need that he should have to write you for you yourselves know perfectly well that the day of the Lord comes as a thief in the night. I guess that is a reference to the Olivet Discourse – you know perfectly well because Jesus taught this.

Answer: I think that is right. Or he could be reflecting on the fact that he said these things to them. It is in 2 Thessalonians 2:5, “Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you this?” So he could be referring simply to his prior visit to Thessalonica when he preached the Gospel to them. But I suspect you are right in that these Jesus traditions were passed on and were well known in the church. Remember what we said about Paul’s knowledge that the Last Supper occurred on the night that Jesus was betrayed. He knew the historical context of the traditions that he passed on. So it is very likely here, I think, that the Thessalonians were aware that Jesus had said that his Second Coming would come like a thief in the night. But it is clearly an echo of that saying that I read in Matthew, I think.

Interestingly enough – I didn’t mention this – it also appears in 2 Peter 3:10. I didn’t mention it because Peter isn’t one of the writers that we are dealing with here. But it does show that this motif was well-known: “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up.” Here, again, is the final dissolution of this world that will happen when the day of the Lord comes like this thief. So this motif of coming like a thief in the night was one that was known not only to Paul but to other New Testament writers.[4]

Question: From what I understand of the usual pre-trib timetable is that you have the rapture, the church is taken away, then you have the antichrist, tribulation, and all that. But in 2 Thessalonians it says you cannot have the day of the Lord until the rebellion comes and the man of lawlessness (which would be the antichrist) is revealed. So that alone would seem to indicate that this day of the Lord occurs at the end. It is after all the tribulation and antichrist and the rest of it.

Answer: This was one of the things that I was confused about that reading the transcript helped me to understand. When I read the comments, it was clear to me that they don’t think the expression “the day of the Lord” refers to the rapture. Because otherwise it would be post-trib, right? It is afterward that the day of the Lord occurs. They said that the day of the Lord refers to the day of God’s wrath. It is the tribulation, in effect. But that is why I spent several moments talking about how Paul uses this expression. I think he uses it to refer to the Second Coming of Christ and not to the tribulation. But I think you are right. What that emphasizes, I think, is this: he is not talking about the rapture here even by the pre-trib point of view. This isn’t the rapture. This is talking about the day of the Lord – the coming of Christ – when he is going to slay the lawless one and destroy him by his appearing and coming. So the rapture, if it occurs, has got to be read into this. It is not there. You’ve got to say something like what was said last time: well, what is restraining him is now out of the way. Maybe that is the church, and the church has been yanked out of the world, or something. It is reading it in, I think,

Question: Last time you said that Darby had basically started the rapture. He actually got the idea from a fifteen-year-old visionary mystic named Margaret McDonald. He was so taken with that vision that he developed the rapture theology around it and it grew from there.[5] But you also mentioned that Dallas Theological Seminary has been a source of a lot of teachers on the rapture and dispensationalism. Dr. John Walvoord was the president of the seminary there for a number of decades and he was a leader of the rapture theology proponents. He wrote a book in 1957 called The Rapture Question. He said in there that “the question of the rapture is determined more by ecclesiology than eschatology.” In other words, it is your view of the church that determines whether you believe in the rapture at all. He went on to say that neither pre-millennialism nor post-millennialism is explicitly taught in Scripture. This was in the first edition of that book. It caused such a stir, such an uproar, in the rapture community that from then on he took it out. This was the leader of the rapture believers that actually said it is not taught in Scripture.

Answer: I am not familiar with that background. I take it you are sure of those facts.

Followup: Positive.

Answer: I wonder what he meant when he said, Your view of ecclesiology determines this. What is he thinking of?

Followup: It is your view of the church. If you separate the church from Israel, you have to have some way to get the church out of the picture in order for Israel to participate in the thousand-year reign after Christ’s second coming. It is all intertwined.

Answer: OK. I don’t want to open that can of worms! [laughter] This is replacement theology – the idea here is that all the promises made to Israel in the old covenant are now the church’s, and the church replaces Israel as the chosen people of God and is heir to all the promises. Whereas others would say: no, no, God still has a plan for Israel. Israel remains God’s chosen people and he is not done with them yet.

Followup: But rapture theology and dispensationalism go hand-in-hand.

Answer: I understand that. But it is an issue that I think we better not open. Not because it is too controversial. We are not afraid of that, but simply because it would take us too far astray. This is on the Doctrine of the Last Things, not Doctrine of the Church.[6]

Question: I asked last time about the actual passage and whether in Thessalonians it actually says “meet him in the air;” whether the Greek word “air” is actually used. I was just wondering if you could comment on that and exactly what it does say in the Greek. My understanding has always been that Darby misunderstood what was actually written in the original Greek.

Answer: I am not familiar with what he said about that. This is in 1 Thessalonians 4:17. The word in the Greek there is aera, which is just “air.” So he says we will meet the Lord in the clouds in the air.

Followup: So it is air?

Answer: Yeah, it is air.

Question: First of all, when the rapture does occur and we are all caught up to be with the Lord, I am going to resist the temptation of saying I told you so because I will be perfected and I won’t do that.

Answer: I wouldn’t mind if you did because I’ll be perfected, too! [laughter]

Followup: One thing that I would question – I did not know that you saw “day of the Lord” as somehow different in the New Testament than in the Old. I don’t think it is different. I think it is the same. I think it almost becomes a technical term. It is twenty-six times spoken of directly in Scripture – day of the Lord. I will say I agree with you that the day of Christ is not the same as the day of the Lord. I will differentiate those two.

Answer: That would disagree with me.

Followup: You said it was the day that he came. I agree with you – I think you are right about that. When you read those texts, I think that is. One thing – if the day of the Lord was the day when Christ returns I do not understand why the Thessalonians would have been upset. It would seem to me they would rather have rejoiced to think that they were in the day of the Lord. Paul has taught them from the beginning to look up, that your salvation is near, be on the alert, be watchful. It is what we are looking for. It is called our blessed hope. It is that which excites us and it spurs us on to Christian godly living because we have been bought with such a price that when our redeemer comes it is all over and we are together with him. I think the “day of the Lord” is a technical term; I believe it starts with the seventh trumpet. I think given enough time I could prove it to you with Scripture. But it is really hard to sit here and try to sum up things like the rapture in five minutes. I can’t do that. It is the totality of Scripture. It is looking everywhere that word is used and how it is used. It seems to begin when he steps into the temple and declares himself to be God.

Answer: You are talking about the man of lawlessness?

Followup: Yes. It seems to end, as Peter says, at the end of, not just the tribulation, but the millennial kingdom because there will still be judgment meted out. I believe it’s the Word Biblical Commentary and certainly Spiros Zodhiates in his dictionary of the New Testament, he is Greek . . . I love his Greek dictionary. He really goes into great detail about the day of the Lord and what it means. We have to look at the context.

Answer: That is critical. We can at least agree on this point: with the interpretation of Scripture, it’s critical to look at context. So when we talk about the “day of the Lord” in Paul’s correspondence we need to look at what Paul meant by it and how he used it because we know that Paul read the Old Testament through the lenses of Christ. Look at the way he interprets the Jewish doctrine of the resurrection now in terms of Christ – the first fruits and then the rest of the harvest coming at the end. It is the Jewish doctrine of the resurrection of the dead but it is seen in a Christological perspective. He refers to the day of the Lord Jesus. He interprets this Christologically, I think. But we can at least agree on this point. I think that is a takeaway here. When we read Scripture, look first at the immediate context, and then the wider context, and then how different authors used it, and so forth. If this lesson has been a stimulus for you to do that, I think that is a very positive result. I am not asking you to agree with me.

Question: Two points. I’ll stick with my interpretation that the day of the Lord here refers to the seven year tribulation period. The vast majority of biblical prophecies come from the Old Testament, not the New Testament. And Daniel is by far the most important book of prophecy in the Bible. Daniel 9:27 talks about that seven years. I would say this also: if you are correct and the day of the Lord can also mean Christ’s cataclysmic judgment on mankind – you can make a good point for that and that is one of the meanings of day of the Lord – if that is the meaning here in Thessalonians, how in the world could they have missed that? If it is like the lightning going from the left to the right, and the buzzards over the kill, and all of that, how could they have missed it? I think that argues against the idea that that meaning of the day of the Lord is used there. That is my first point.

Answer: I’ll let you go on but I did respond to that question by means of this heresy that was being taught by Hymenaeus and Philetus.

Followup: But how could they have missed it? Regardless of who taught what, if Christ’s return is anything like what he said in the Olivet Discourse, everybody on Earth is going to know it. It is going to be everywhere. So they would have seen it.

Answer: Unless they had spiritualized it in this sort of Gnostic way.

Followup: I am talking about if they believed what was in the Olivet Discourse. An event like that could not go unnoticed by everybody on Earth so how in the world could they have missed it? That’s my first point. My second point is this. If I can’t get you to admit the existence of the rapture, perhaps I can get you to admit that there are two entirely different operations by Christ here. Let’s take the first classic one where he comes to mete out eternal punishment on unbelievers, on unregenerate mankind. This is shown in Revelation 19 when he is the fifth horseman of the apocalypse who comes with blood on his robe and sentences him to eternal damnation. That’s (a). Also, he touches down. Zechariah 14 says his foot touches the Mount of Olives when he comes for that task or operation. Now, the rapture – air – he does not touch down. There is no evidence given that he touches down. That is one huge difference. Now, the rapture could not be more different in its purpose. Hebrews 9:28 says that we look for Christ’s return. He will come to give us his salvation – he will bring salvation to those who are looking for him. John 14:2-3 – in my Father’s house are many mansions. I go there to prepare a place for you and I will come back and take you there with me. 1 Corinthians 15:51-52, we shall not all sleep – sleep being a metaphor for the death of a believer – but we will all be changed in a twinkling of an eye. You see the body of description of this rapture is vastly different from what he is doing . . . There are many good Bible scholars who agree that the two events occur simultaneously – I disagree with that. I think that the rapture occurs seven years before. But you must admit those are two vastly different operations, and if you are going to have him do it you must believe that he does that simultaneously on his Second Coming.

Answer: I would see them as two sides of the same coin. Look at 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10. He says,

. . . God deems it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant rest with us to you who are afflicted, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know God and upon those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at in all who have believed . . .

It seems to me that there will be wrath and destruction for the unsaved, but there will be salvation for those who are saved. These are two sides of the same coin.

Followup: Right. My point is that since they are so far, as you say, on different sides of the coin, opposite extremes, it would not be implausible to think that they could occur temporally at different times. It would not be implausible because they are so different.

Answer: All right. That will depend, I guess, on how you would read these passages, and I’ve already spoken on that.

Question: The first thing on the air that they had talking about Christ’s resurrection already occurring, they should have known that the only event that kept the rapture from occurring would be the crucifixion of the apostle Peter.[7] It was prophesied he would die the same way before Christ returned. That would be one thing. The second thing is – I agree with the other person and his eschatology – you have to tie the seventieth week with the feast of trumpets. We are waiting for trumpets in the timetable. “Trumpets” is the rapture. This is in the Jewish feast calendar. The last thing is if you reject a rapture and day of the Lord you have to allegorize a lot of the Old Testament as well as Revelation. But you also have to explain why there is a physical Israel. There is no need in an amillennial format to have a physical Israel. So the fact that there is is evidence that this is fulfilling a timetable God has with the Jews.

Answer: Let me just make quickly one comment. Again it will be a hermeneutical comment similar to what I said earlier. I have noticed that some folks want to use the controlling factor in this to be prophecy. It seems to me that that is a mistake. You should take the didactic portions of Scripture as primary; that is to say, the doctrinal portions of Scripture where Paul, for example, is teaching doctrine. Then you interpret the prophecies in light of the doctrine. You don’t take the prophecies as your primary foundation and then try to make the teaching fit it. The reason for that is obvious. The prophecies are ambiguous. They are so difficult to interpret many times. Look at how the New Testament authors often interpret the Scriptures in the Old Testament and in very unexpected ways. So you’ve got to begin first with the teaching, I think, of Jesus and of Paul and then you can look at the prophecies in light of that and how they may have been fulfilled. But don’t impose the prophecies on the didactic parts of Scripture.

Next time we will look at preterism, which is the very interesting view that these prophecies, far from being in the future, have already been fulfilled.[8]

[1] 5:02

[2] 10:00

[3] 15:00

[4] 20:00

[5] This is a highly controversial and disputed claim.

[6] 25:02

[7] 35:00

[8] Total Running Time: 37:35 (Copyright © 2014 William Lane Craig)