Abandoning Left Behind Eschatology

I’ve never written a blog on eschatology or the “rapture” but I’ll take a stab at it. Before starting, it is fitting to point out that from my reading of Scripture, theology, and Church History, I think the Historic Premillennialist interpretation is the most sound of all the eschatological systems. Historic Premillennialism is the “conviction that Christ will return at the end of human history as we know it, prior to the long period of time, depicted in Revelation 20:1-7 as a thousand years, in which he reigns on earth, creating a golden era of peace and happiness for all believers along at the time of his return along with all believers of past eras who are resurrected and glorified at this time.” It is called “Historic” because this view was the dominant millennial view for the first four centuries of Church history (Origen’s allegorical hermeneutics and Augustine’s reaction to eschatological sensationalism nailed the coffin shut on early Premillennialism until its recovery years latter down the corridors of history.). It is identified as Premillennial because it views the Parousia or coming as logically prior (hence the prefix “pre”) to the millennium. The New Testament’s usage of thilipis [tribulation] reveals that the “great tribulation” is the time inaugurated by the “destruction of Jerusalem, the burning of the city, and the razing of the temple by the Romans in AD 70 . . . that continues until the Second Coming.” Historic Premillennialism has a kissing cousin by the name of Pretribulational Dispensational Premillennialism that has been quite popular in the last 200 years or so after being created. The eschatological system is a theological tradition that divides history into time periods called dispensations, that sees a vast chasm between Israel and the Church, that interprets Scripture in a literalistic fashion, and that believes the Church will be taken away before the tribulation. Though popular because of stuff like the Left Behind series and the proliferation of it at various seminaries (e.g. Dallas Theological), I believe the system is fatally flawed and should be abandoned for the historic premillennial position.

1st Thess. 4:16-17 is the only one of two legitimate rapture verses in the whole Bible. 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 says, “”For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.” The word ‘rapture’ itself is not mentioned in the this passage but from the Latin Vulgates translation of the Greek word harpazo or caught up in verse 17. The other is found in Matthew 24:29-31 where it says “Immediately after the tribulation of those days . . He shall send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together His elect from the four winds” The gathering of the elect is what Historic Premillennialists consider the rapture of the church.

Arguments for a Post-tribulation (gathering of the elect) Rapture

1. The word for “meeting” the Lord in the air in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 (apantesin) is used in two other places in the New Testament: Matthew 25:6 and Acts 28:15. In both places it refers to a meeting in which people go out to meet a dignitary and then accompany him in to the place from which they came out. One of these, Matthew 25:6, is even a parable of the second coming and so a strong argument that this is the sense of the meeting here in 1 Thess. 4:17-that we rise to meet the Lord in the air and then welcome him to earth as king. He is not returning to heaven but is en route to rule and reign bodily on the earth.

2. The wording of 2 Thessalonians 1:5-7, when read carefully, shows that Paul expects to attain rest from suffering at the same time and in the same event that he expects the unbelievers to receive punishment, namely, at the revelation of Jesus with mighty angels in flaming fire. This revelation is not the pre-tribulational rapture but the glorious second coming. Which means that Paul did not expect an event at which he and the other believers would be given rest seven years before the glorious appearing of Christ in flaming fire. Vengeance on unbelievers and rest for the persecuted church come on the same day in the same event. The Post tribulation gathering is consistent with the overall message of Scripture. Suffering, tribulation, and trials are taught 252 times in Scripture.

3. The wording of 2 Thessalonians 2:1-2 suggests that the “assembling to meet him” is the same as “the day of the Lord” about which they are confused. But the assembling is the “rapture” and “the day of the Lord” is the glorious second coming. They appear to be one event.

Supporting this is the reference to “gathering” the elect in Matthew 24:31. Here there is a gathering (same root word) but it is clearly a post-tribulational context. So there is no need to see the gathering and the day of the Lord in 2 Thessalonians as separate events.

4. If Paul were a pre-tribulationist why did he not simply say in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 that the Christians don’t need to worry that the day of the Lord is here because all the Christians are still here? Instead he talks just the way you would expect a post-tribulational person to do. He tells them that they should not think that the day of the Lord is here because the apostasy and the man of lawlessness have not appeared. Furthermore, it is doubtful that the restrainer is the Holy Spirit (2 Thess. 2:3-11) because the Bible teaches that no one can be converted without the regenerating and drawing power of the Holy Spirit (Ezek. 36:25-26; Jn. 1:13; 3:5-8; Ac. 5:31; 11:18; 16:13-14; 1 Cor. 2:12-14; 2 Cor. 4:6; Eph. 2:1, 5; Col. 2:11; Tit. 3:5). Though we do not know who the restrainer is, we find it highly doubtful it is the Holy Spirit himself.

5. When you read Matthew 24 or Mark 13 or Luke 21, which are Jesus’ descriptions of the end times, there is no mention of a rapture removing believers from the events of the end. A normal reading gives no impression of a departure. On the contrary, he talks as if the believing listeners and then the readers would or could experience the things he mentions. See Mt. 24:4, 9, 15, 23, 25f, 33, etc.

6. Going through tribulation, even when it is appointed by God, is not contrary to Biblical teaching. See especially 1 Peter 4:17; 2 Thessalonians 1:3-10; Hebrews 12:3-11. But even so, Revelation 9:4 suggests that the saints will be in some measure protected in the time of distress by the seal of God.

7. The commands to “watch” do not lose their meaning if the second coming is not an any-moment one. See Matt. 25:1-13 where all ten maidens are asleep when the Lord returns. Yet the lesson at the end of the parable is, “Watch!” The point is that watching is not gazing up for an any-moment-return of the Lord; it is the moral vigilance that keeps you ready at all times doing your duty—the wise maidens had full lanterns! They were watchful! The context of Matthew 25 and Luke 12 indicates that the parables are about the eschatological Day of the Lord where the wicked and righteous are judged.

Nor does the teaching that the second coming will be unexpected lose its force if post-tribulationism is true. See Luke 12:46 where the point is that if a servant gets drunk thinking that his master is delayed and will not catch him-that very servant will be surprised and taken off guard. But as 1 Thess. 5:1-5 says, “You (believers) are not in darkness for that day to surprise you like a thief.” We still teach that great moral vigilance and watchfulness is necessary lest we be lulled asleep and fall prey to the deceits of the last days and be overtaken in the judgment.

8. The strongest pre-tribulational text, Rev. 3:10, is open to another interpretation without any twisting. It says, “Because you have kept my word of patient endurance, will keep you from the hour of trial which is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell upon the earth.” But to “be kept for the hour of testing” is not necessarily to be taken out of the world during this hour, and thus spared suffering. Compare Gal. 1:4 and Jesus’ prayer for his disciples in John 17:15 where to “keep from” does not mean physical removal. And notice the inevitability of martyrdom in Rev. 6:9-11. The promise is to be guarded from the hour in the sense of being guarded from the demoralizing forces of that hour. If Revelation 3:10 is supposed to be for the whole church 2,000 years down the road, anything else that was said to the other Asia Minor churches must be applied the same way. The church of Smyrna is told that they “will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful unto death” (Rev. 2:10). Does that mean there is another partial rapture? We have to be hermeneutically consistent…

9. The second coming does not lose its moral power in post-tribulationism. New Testament moral incentive is not that we should fear being caught doing evil, but that we should so love the appearing of the Lord that we want to be pure as the Lord is pure, for whom we hope, as 1 John 3:1-3 says.

10. Pretribulationists typically point to Paul saying that ‘God did not appoint us to wrath’  in arguing that the Church cannot be on the earth during portions of what the book of Revelation describes because wrath is being poured out upon everyone. But, this makes a lot of assumptions. The ‘wrath’ of 1st Thess. 5:9 could possibly not be the same type of wrath in the book of Revelation. It assumes that the only method at God’s disposal for protecting the church from His wrath is a total removal from the earth. It also assumes that wrath in the book of Revelation is poured out on God’s people when the book itself says otherwise (Rev. 9:4; 9:20-21; 14:9-10; 16:1-2). If that is true, the wrath poured out during what is mentioned would be like that poured out during the Exodus time. God’s people we there but were spared.

11. Some proponents of the Pretribulational rapture advocates see John’s visionary ascension to heaven as a symbolic metaphor for the church’s rapture. In the immediate context (Revelation 4:1-2) it says that John the Apostle is transported to the throne room of heaven. Not one word is uttered that suggests that John represents the church or that the people of God as a whole are taken to heaven.  If that was the case, every time someone was given a vision of Heaven it must be applied to the whole church. What about Ezekiel and Isaiah’s heavenly visions? Were those OT rapture scenarios?

12. Early Church Fathers all taught we would be present on the earth during the time of the Antichrist (Justin Martyr in Trypho cx, Irenaeus in Against Heresies V, 30, 4, Tertullian in On the Resurrection of the Flesh xxv, and Cyprian in Epistle 55,7).

For those reasons above, it seems wise that the Pretribulational Dispensational rapture be left behind or abandoned. It seems like today’s church wants to be raptured from responsibility, persecution, and from the basic Christian life that the majority of fellow believers abroad live. Let us shun such a terrible thing.

See also A Case for Historic Premillennialism: An Alternative to “Left Behind” Eschatology by Craig Blomberg and a paper from John Piper Titled “Definitions and Observations Concerning the Second Coming of Christ”

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2 responses to “Abandoning Left Behind Eschatology

  1. Austin –
    I think you have written quite well upon this subject. I have considered these things at some length over the years. The camp that I was raised in was all Pre-trib, Pre-mil, with a primarily futurist interpretation of Revelation. Over the years I have found myself growing dissatisfied with the Pre-trib rapture position, largely because (like you) I find the support verses rather shaky at best. I agree that Revelation 3:10, and perhaps 1 Thess. 5:9, are the strongest support for the Pre-trib position, but also like you I find other interpretations plausible. I agree that Jesus’ own teaching on the subject strongly show that when He returns, it will inaugurate the Day of the Lord in which He will begin Judgment.
    I found the commentary on Revelation in Snyder’s class very helpful, and I can appreciate at least some reasoning in all the views. I largely do not agree with the Preterist view, though I believe it could definitely be a historic pre-figuring of the end times Day of the Lord. I think I fall down somewhere between the Historic and the Futurist interpretation. I am not ready to abandon the 7 year tribulation just prior to Christ’s return, though I am all but convinced that the Pre-trib rapture should be abandoned. I just simply think that we are not really going to know when the clock has started for the 7 year period. I spent some time studying the book Daniel on this issue, and I think that we still have to deal with Daniel’s 70th week. Sir Robert Anderson wrote extensively on this subject in his work “The Coming Prince,” and I find his research extremely compelling. If you have not read this, I would be interested to get your thoughts on it.
    Another thing that keeps me partially in the futurist camp is Islamic eschatology. If you have not looked into what their system teaches, I highly recommend doing so. They too are expecting a messiah, called the “Mahdi,” and interestingly enough they are actually expecting Jesus to return as well. His return will be inaugurated when the world is in a state of chaos and war, which is why this system is not interested in peace. Peace will not bring their messiah. But, when you read about what Jesus is to do when he comes back, it becomes very clear that the Jesus of Islam is NOT the Jesus of the Bible. They speak of a 7 year tribulation where Jesus and the Mahdi will slaughter all non-Muslim’s. I think one could make a very strong case that the Islamic system could be the “deluding influence” spoke about in 2 Thess. 2:11. I posted an article on my FB page concerning these things. Give it a look when you have some time; I’d appreciate your thoughts.
    When it all falls down, if our interpretation is correct, this is not necessarily a comforting thought. The Day of the Lord is going to be terrible, and it is not going to be a happy time to be alive. We have God’s assurance that those who are His will stand firm until the end, and even if we are called to suffer for His Name’s sake He is able to preserve us, and bring us safely home.

    • I’ll have to get Mr. Anderson’s book. The book of Revelation has always been a book that has caught and kept my attention. I find myself with hybrid viewpoint of it having direct 1st century relevance but also future fulfillment as well (I’m not sure what I’d call that). The Islamic eschatology is absolutely shocking. With dialoguing with Muslims, they affirmed Jesus would be coming back to “show” Christians the error of their way (they forget to mention that knowledge will come by the edge of a sword for nonmuslims). I find it absolutely amazing how much of the Muslim eschatology seems to line up with what Scripture says is coming. It has a way of strengthening the faith for the hard things that are coming.

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