The Doctrine of the Last Things (part 2)

October 12, 2009     Time: 00:24:52

We’ve been looking at the Doctrine of the Last Things. In the last lesson, we looked at some of the biblical data from the Old Testament and the New Testament with respect to the return of Christ. Now what I want to do today is to add a new point to the outline that isn’t on the outline. I’m sorry, it is not there. But this is important material that I think needs to be covered. So if you want to just insert a new Roman numeral ii between i and ii we are going to have a new point before we go to ii. which was the nature of the second coming. So we’ve talked about biblical data, and now what we want to talk about is what I’ve entitled this section as “One Coming or Many?”

For the fact is, and this was brought up last time in the question time, many people don’t think of the second coming of Christ as a single event which will come at the end of human history. Rather, they think that there are actually multiple returns of Christ rather than a single return of Christ. So today I want to look at two of these views that hold that there are actually multiple returns of Christ rather than one. I am going to argue that neither of these is a plausible interpretation of the biblical material.

The first view I am going to call “the rapture view.” According to this view of the rapture, there will be an invisible return of Christ to snatch away believers from the earth before the visible final return of Christ. Before the final visible return of Christ there is going to be an invisible return of Christ to snatch away believers out of the world.

This is not a historic position of the Christian church. The Christian church historically has affirmed the unity of the second coming of Christ, that it will occur at the end of human history and will be a visible personal return of Christ. But in the 19th century this rapture view which was propounded by an Anglo-Irish evangelist named John Darby became very popular in conservative Christian circles. So sometimes this view is called Darbyism after John Darby. In 1827 he published a book espousing this viewpoint. This viewpoint then was picked up by the Scofield Reference Bible which tended to popularize it among fundamentalists and conservatives. A number of institutions held to this point of view – principally Dallas Theological Seminary, a very prominent evangelical institution which is committed to this position. Also popular writers have written books and novels espousing this view. One thinks, for example, of Hal Lindsey with his runaway best sellers The Late Great Planet Earth and its sequels, and also more recently Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins with their Left Behind series. So this is a view that is very popular in evangelical circles and I imagine for many of you, as for me, this was just the sort of view you unconsciously absorbed in the evangelical subculture. You just sort of grew up learning this view and have never really looked at it critically to see whether or not it bears out the biblical teaching of the New Testament.

You will remember last time we read Jesus’ end-time discourse called the Olivet Discourse because he gave it as he sat on the Mount of Olives looking over at the temple found in Mark 13. So you may want to turn to that passage because we will be referring to that a lot.[1] As you look at the Olivet Discourse, you would never imagine that there is going to be some sort of invisible return of Christ to snatch people out of the world. In Mark 13:19,24-27 we read,

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. . . . “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.

Here it seems very clear that the tribulation will occur first. Christians will not be snatched away from it – there is nothing here to suggest that Christ is going to invisibly return and snatch them out of it. Then after the tribulation will come the visible second coming of Christ. So nobody, I think, reading Jesus’ Olivet Discourse would ever think that somewhere along the line there’s going to be some sort of invisible return of Jesus to snatch people out of the world. So where in the world does this idea come from? Well, the answer is, it doesn’t come from Jesus’ teaching. It comes from 1 Thessalonians 4, which we also read and to which I’d like you to turn now. 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17, where Paul says,

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 proponents of this rapture view interpret this to be this rapture – this invisible return of Christ where he snatches believers out of the world. Then when Paul goes on in verse 1 of chapter 5, “But as to the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need to have anything written to you.” This then is describing the second coming of Christ – the visible return of Christ. So, they divide or break up this passage in Thessalonians into the invisible rapture in chapter 4 which is then followed by the tribulation and the visible return of Christ in chapter 5. So that’s where the idea of the rapture comes from. That’s pretty slim exegetical basis. That is pretty much it if you want to see a difference between the second coming of Christ and this rapture view.

What can we say in response to this? Well, I think first of all we have to say that there really are no grounds here for seeing a distinct event from the second coming of Christ. Certainly there is no hint at all, as we said, in the Olivet Discourse that there is going to be some sort of invisible return of Christ prior to his visible personal return at the end of the great tribulation. Now, proponents of the rapture view say, ah, but look in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 where it says, “we who are alive . . . shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” This is referring to the rapture or the snatching out of the church. Well, the problem here with that interpretation of this verse is that the Greek word that is used here for “meeting the Lord” – apantesis – this Greek word is used in Greek literature to describe the people of a city going out of the city to greet an incoming dignitary or returning conqueror to welcome him back into the city.[2] So what this is describing here, it seems, is that the elect of God will be gathered to the Lord in the air to greet him and welcome him as he returns visibly to earth. In fact, this is the same event that seems to be described in Mark 13:26-27, “. . . 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.” So this is the gathering of the elect as they go out to greet Christ as he returns and comes visibly to earth. It is not imagining, it seems, any sort of invisible return of Christ or snatching them out of the world.

Moreover, note that this is also the event at which the resurrection of the dead occurs. In 1 Thessalonians 4:14-16, it says,

For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 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.

So this is the moment of the end-time resurrection of the dead. That is an event that occurs at the end of history. Look at what Jesus says in John 5:25-29:

“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.

[Here you have this notion again of the Son of Man and the judgment. Note those elements that are in the Olivet Discourse.]

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.

So this is the final resurrection when the Son of Man comes and the dead in the tombs hear his voice and the evil and the just alike are raised from the dead to judgment.

Also, compare this with Paul’s treatment of the resurrection of the dead in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s great treatise on the resurrection. 1 Corinthians 15:51-57,

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?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

So when Christ returns, this is going to be the destruction of death itself. This is when death is swallowed up in victory. It is not going to continue on through the tribulation and on after that. This is the end of death. This is the resurrection of the dead when death will finally be conquered. In fact, look earlier in the same chapter – 1 Corinthians 15:22-26,

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. 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 it is death that is the final enemy to be conquered and this will be conquered at the time of the resurrection.[3] So the return of Christ is intimately tied up with the resurrection of the dead and the destruction of death itself, which is incompatible with a sort of invisible return of Christ and pulling people out of the world and yet death continuing on after that.

Moreover, notice this: Paul wrote a second letter to the Thessalonians in which he commented further on what he had said in his first letter about the return of Christ. Look at 2 Thessalonians 2:1-8. Here he 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. 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.

So this is the same event that is referred to in 1 Thessalonians 4:15. In 1 Thessalonians 4:15 he says, “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.” Then in 2 Thessalonians 2:1 he says, “Now concerning the coming of our Lord.” The word there is the same – it’s parousia. Remember that is the word for the return of Christ or the coming of Christ. So he is talking about the same event in 1 Thessalonians 4 and 2 Thessalonians 2. In both of these he says, “Now concerning the parousia of the Lord Jesus.” But clearly in the passage that I just read from 2 Thessalonians, the return of Christ occurs after the rebellion and the apostasy and the man of lawlessness who will exalt himself against God. In fact, go back to Mark 13 again – the Olivet Discourse – and look at what Jesus says about this person. Mark 13:14, “But when you see the desolating sacrilege” – or the abomination of desolation, as some translations put it – “set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.” This is a reminiscence of the abomination of desolation that occurred earlier in Jewish history when Antiochus Epiphanes sacrificed a sow or hog on the alter of the temple and desecrated it and defiled the temple. Jesus is saying when you see this happen – let the reader understand this is going to be a repeat of what happened before – then flee to the mountains. Then in 2 Thessalonians, Paul says that this man of lawlessness, when he appears, is going to take his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God in verse 4 of 2 Thessalonians 2. So here again it shows that this is not an event that is taking place prior to the second coming of Christ and the tribulation. This is an event that follows the rebellion, the abomination of desolation, and so forth.[4]

Also compare the gathering of the saints in Mark 13:27 where Jesus says, “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 is when the Son of Man returns – he is going to gather the elect from all the earth. Compare that with 2 Thessalonians 2:1, “Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our assembling to meet him.” The word here in the Greek is the same – episunago, or in the noun form in 2 Thessalonians it is episunagoge. So he is talking about the same event that Jesus is talking about. After all, think of this. Where did Paul get his beliefs about the second coming of Christ? Where did he come up with this stuff? Well, he got it from Jesus of course! He is echoing the teachings of Jesus, even using the same language. So it seems to me quite unjustified to think that what Paul is talking about here in 1 Thessalonians 4 is some invisible return of Christ prior to the tribulation and distinct from and apart from his visible bodily second coming.

DISCUSSION

Question: [inaudible – asks about the significance of the marriage supper of the Lamb, the wedding chamber, and the wedding feast in the book of Revelation]

Answer: I don’t think there is anything in the book of Revelation that would support this notion of an invisible return of Christ and taking the church out of the world. Right? In Revelation, it goes right through the plagues and the curses and there is no suggestion there that the church is somehow going to be pulled out.

Followup: [inaudible – asks if the wedding supper happens after all of this is over]

Answer: Do you have a reference for us?

Followup: [inaudible]

Answer: Well, now, I don’t see anything there that supports . . . I mean, all of the plagues and the bowls of wrath and all that have all gone before this. I don’t see anything to suggest here that folks have been pulled out of the world. So the principal passage to which I think dispensationalists (which is another word for this view) have to appeal is going to be the Thessalonians passage and you’ve got to deal with the exegesis of that passage and not try to interpret it by imposing some kind of inferences about revelation on it. I don’t see it in Revelation.

Followup: [inaudible – asks if this is also the same time as Luke 19:27]

Answer: I don’t think you will find anything in Matthew or Luke that will affect what Jesus says in Mark 13 in terms of giving a hint of an invisible rapture or something.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: That’s extremely weak. I mean, that is John’s being transported to the throne room to see these visions. That would really, really be reading in between the lines.

Question: [inaudible] First of all, all of this doesn’t affect anybody’s salvation.

Answer: Oh, of course not.

Followup: [inaudible]

Answer: Could I just say something? You made a good point or distinction there – you said, “Does it prove it? No, but it’s compatible with it.” Obviously, these passages are compatible with this interpretation. Otherwise, intelligent people couldn’t hold it.[5] You can read these passages in this way if you want to but my problem is, although it is compatible with it, it doesn’t seem to me that that is what it’s saying. Unless you come to it with that view in mind you wouldn’t take it out of that.

Followup: [inaudible]

Answer: Well, now, OK, let’s not pull in millennialism here because I haven’t said anything here to deny a literal millennium. There are lots of folks who are literal millennialists – pre-millennialists – but they just don’t differentiate between this rapture view and the second coming.

Followup: [inaudible]

Answer: All right. Yeah, I think that those would be typical arguments that you would hear for the dispensationalist view. I hope everyone has understood them.

Let me just comment on one and that is the imminency view. I think this does affect your view of imminency. If you think that there isn’t going to be this invisible snatching of the church out of the world, then that does mean that certain kinds of things have to happen first and that therefore it isn’t true that in every generation the return of Christ is imminent. But I would say that given what Jesus says about “you know not the times or the hours, therefore be alert, be on your watch” it is imminent in that sense for every generation. Every generation needs to be prepared to meet the Lord but I think you are quite right in saying that it wouldn’t be literally imminent, literally it could happen at any time. It seems to me Paul says as much in 2 Thessalonians 5.

That is a good presentation of the other side.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: All right, now this leads to the second view that I want to talk about which we will not have time to but let me preview it for you. Quite a few folks who have rejected the rapture view are nevertheless attracted to the view that the coming of the Son of Man occurred in AD 70 with the destruction of Jerusalem, and the Olivet Discourse is to be interpreted symbolically. So people like N. T. Wright, Richard France, take the view that, in fact, the second coming of the Son of Man already occurred; namely, it occurred in AD 70, and that all these prophecies in Mark 13 have been fulfilled. So that is the view that we will look at next time, which is different obviously from the rapture view but it is strikingly similarly to it in that both of these views split the second coming of Christ apart and make this kind of invisible return of the Son of Man a distinct event from his visible coming to earth to set up his Kingdom.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: You are reading from Matthew? OK, let me just say something about that. That is not going to work because that is taking about the parousia – that is talking about the final return of Christ. Look at the context. That is after the tribulation occurs – that is the tribulation in verse 29 – and then comes the part about how one will be taking the other . . . so that verse isn’t a rapture verse. Not even on this view it is not. That is a verse that is about the folks after the tribulation when the parousia occurs and the Son of Man comes visibly.

Followup: [inaudible]

Answer: Well, I don’t know what to say to that except it is very clear that Jesus says it is going to be a surprise. Even if you believe there is a rapture, he still says that when the Son of Man returns in his visible personal way the people are going to be caught off guard and will be saying things are all right and he’s going to come back. So don’t confuse the passages by making them apply to one event when they are talking about the other.[6] As I say, you won’t get the rapture by reading the words of Jesus. You are going to have to get that out of Paul and this passage in Thessalonians. Because in the Olivet Discourse, whether in Matthew, Mark, or Luke, this return of the Son of Man happens after the tribulation. Nevertheless, it is still unexpected.

Followup: [inaudible]

Answer: No, I thought I would just let them stand and folks can weigh them as you want to.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: That is an interesting perspective. Because Jesus said, “When you see these signs happening, then you will know that he is at the very gates. Be alert.” He did seem to be saying in Mark 13 that for the person who is alert and is watching that he’ll know that Christ is near, that Christ is at the gates. But it may be that the populace at large – the unbelievers, the apostate world – will be caught completely off guard.

Followup: [inaudible]

Answer: Right, they would be caught completely off guard. That view holds whether you think there is a rapture or not. The surprise element is clearly connected by Jesus with the parousia, whether you believe there was a rapture earlier or not.

As I say, that is one view that many folks hold to today that I find implausible based on Scripture and therefore I think that we shouldn’t adopt that. But let’s next time look at a quite different view which has become very popular and very sophisticated in the defense of it which is that all of these events actually have taken place in AD 70 with the destruction of Jerusalem. So that will be the view we look at next time.[7]



[1] 4:58

[2] 10:00

[3] 15:17

[4] 19:55

[5] 24:58

[6] 30:02

[7] Total Running Time: 32:37 (Copyright © 2013 William Lane Craig)