Come on, children
You’re acting like children
Thinks it’s the end of the world
– Wilco, “You Never Know”
I had a spiritual awakening as a teenager in a time when prophetic expectations were high. Israel was in her land and engaged in violent confrontations with her antagonistic neighbors. Issues regarding Arab oil and other tensions in the Middle East were becoming more intense. Life in the United States itself was in turmoil. Ongoing civil rights struggles, the Vietnam war, the youth culture of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll, amazing technological achievements such as the Apollo space program, the continuing Cold War, and political intrigue in the White House — all these things and more had believers feeling certain that we were in the last days and that Jesus must certainly be returning soon. Prophetic teachers like Hal Lindsey were having a field day and selling lots and lots of books. Youth groups and outreach events often featured films like A Thief in the Night.
In those days I started following Jesus in a fresh way with my New Scofield Bible in hand, prophetic teaching a major part of the Bible studies I attended and the churches where I worshiped. I wasn’t able to spell “dispensationalism,” but my friends and I believed Jesus was coming back. We sang Larry Norman’s “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” with real feeling.
Soon, it was off to Bible College and full immersion in the theology of C.I. Scofield, Lewis Sperry Chafer, Charles Ryrie, John Walvoord, J. Dwight Pentecost, Alva J. McClain, Renald Showers, and Charles Feinberg. If theology was the “Queen of the Sciences,” then dispensationalist eschatology was her crown, I was taught.
In this light, we were warned that such established and traditional interpretations such as “Covenant Theology” and “Amillennialism” were to be dreaded and viewed as hopelessly inadequate. And God forbid that we should get caught making any “compromises” such as acceptance of a post-tribulation rapture. The Book of Revelation was taught in a purely futurist fashion, and the Bible as a whole was presented almost like a giant puzzle book that, once figured out, provided a detailed prophetic vision of “God’s plan for the ages.” It was as clear as the amazing draftsman-like charts in Clarence Larkin’s Dispensational Truth. Which is to say, it was confusing.
Before I ever began to grasp specific exegetical and theological problems with the dispensational system, I felt uncomfortable with the whole approach. The theological charts and outlines and lists of proof texts bore no resemblance to the form of the text I saw when I opened my Bible. I read stories and poetry as well as prophetic passages that spoke in eloquent imagery and with dramatic symbolism that engaged my imagination as well as my mind. However, I could not detect the same kind of beauty or wonder in the prosaic, mechanical system of theology my professors droned on about. All the magnificent animated three dimensional literature of the Scriptures became flattened, reduced to a blueprint or series of mathematical formulae.
Not only that, but the system seemed to miss (or at least downplay) the most important theological point of all — that Jesus and the story of him told in the Gospels is the pinnacle of God’s plan, the fulfillment of his promises. In essence, dispensationalism denies that. Jesus’ ministry was necessary, but only an interim step in God’s ultimate triumph. The real victory will be won when Christ returns. The church is only a “parenthesis” in God’s plan until he starts to work with Israel again.
The dispensational approach fails to see that Jesus fulfilled the calling and role of Israel. They failed to be the light of the world, but he succeeded. Now in him God is gathering his new creation people, made of up of Jews and Gentiles alike. The Jewish people are called to Christ through the Gospel like everyone else, and though God continues to deal providentially with nations, there is no special divine plan for the nation of Israel. The boundaries of the Promised Land now encompass the entire earth, and soon all the kingdoms of this world will become the Kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ.
Not so, say the dispensational teachers. For them the future vision is made up of the Middle East, the nation of Israel, the land of Palestine, the coming Antichrist, a rebuilt temple, the battle of Armageddon, and so on. The event that will trigger it all is the Rapture, when the Church is “caught up” to heaven to be with Christ, spared from the season of trouble that will come on the whole world.
It is only within the entire dispensational system that the teaching of the “Rapture” makes any sense. In fact, you will not find any passage or text in the Bible that unambiguously teaches the pre-tribulation Rapture. It must be inferred from the whole theological package. The reasoning goes like this.
- God made an eternal covenant with the nation of Israel.
- As part of that covenant, Jesus came to offer himself to Israel as their King.
- Israel rejected Jesus, so God set aside Israel for this age and formed the church, which he deals with during this parenthesis in God’s plan known as the Church Age.
- God’s prophetic clock has stopped until the end of the Church Age, when the church will be removed from earth (via Rapture), and God will restart his plan for Israel.
- God resumes his work with Israel during the Tribulation period and the prophetic clock starts ticking once more, leading to the Second Coming, the resurrection and the judgment, the millennial kingdom, the final judgment, and the new heavens and new earth.
Dispensationalism asserts that the reason for the Rapture is to bring the Church Age to its conclusion and make way for God to resume his plan for Israel. Deconstruct that reasoning and out goes the Rapture. Without that theological infrastructure, one would be hard pressed to find anything that looks like the Rapture in the teaching of the Bible.
The one passage that people most invoke as a description of the Rapture (“caught up”) is 1Thessalonians 4:13-17, which is Paul’s teaching about Christ’s return (parousia). I won’t take the time to discuss it in detail here, but refer you to an article by N.T. Wright and another piece that includes commentary by Ben Witherington III and others. Both give excellent explanations of the imagery Paul uses in this text. The Apostle is describing Jesus’ return using language from the culture that evoked the visit of a Roman official, something that has been recognized since the days of the early church. For example, here’s a quote from John Chrysostom (349-407) which gives the sense:
“For when a king drives into a city, those who are honorable go out to meet him; but the condemned await the judge within. And upon the coming of an affectionate father, his children indeed, and those who are worthy to be his children, are taken out in a chariot, that they may see him and kiss him; but the housekeepers who have offended him remain within. (Homily 8 on 1 Thessalonians)”
As James-Michael Smith says, “Paul is not talking about the mass disappearance of Christians from all over the globe. He is talking about the final return of Jesus as conquering King and Judge of the Living and Dead. And he is doing so using the unmistakable vocabulary of Roman Imperial rhetoric, which his Thessalonian readers would’ve immediately recognized.” In other words, the text does not teach a “Rapture” in which the church is removed from the earth, but a triumphant return of a King coming to rule, who is welcomed by those who come out to greet and attend him as he enters his kingdom with acclaim.
There will be one Second Coming, one return, one glorious “appearing” of the Lord Jesus Christ when he comes to consummate his triumphant finished work. It’s time to leave behind puzzle piece theology and read the Bible more carefully as it is given to us, not as we dissect it and put it back together.
In doing so, we will leave teachings like the Rapture far behind.