(An Analysis of Paul’s Letters to the Thessalonians)
There can be no arguing the fact that Dispensationalism has been the predominant ‘system’ of biblical interpretation throughout much of the church in the past century. Both Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism have been influenced and infiltrated by this relatively new way of viewing Scripture; and this to such an extent that most fundamental churches today equate the dispensationalistic method of ‘dividing the word of God’ with orthodoxy. A Christian who does not believe, or even entertains doubts of this historic novelty is considered heretical at worst, and hopelessly ignorant of ‘truth’ at best! It is no longer the Divine Truth we are called to contend for, but the Divided Truth. No longer is the Bible to be viewed as one, seamless revelation by God of Himself to man, but a series of revelations, each marked out and clearly ‘divided’ from the others, even though dispensational teachers are not so clear themselves, nor are they agreed on some of those ‘divisions’.
Not only is the Bible itself divided, so are some of the great events themselves, and nowhere is this more seen than in their teaching on the second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. Oh yes, Jesus Christ is coming again. But, they would have us believe He is coming again . . . and again . . . and perhaps again! This, of course, involves the teaching of the secret rapture of the Church, prior to the great tribulation, to be followed by Christ’s glorious second coming to usher in His millennial reign on earth. Many of the texts quoted to ‘prove’ this theory are from 1st and 2nd Thessalonians. But do they prove this theory? Let us consider what Paul taught concerning the second coming of Christ in his letters to the church at Thessalonica. (Although we confine ourselves to these two letters for the purpose of this article, for obvious reasons we must at times consider some parallel texts and complimentary passages from elsewhere in Scripture).
The Secret-Rapture theory (otherwise known as the 2-stage theory), is based upon confusing interpretations of various scriptures. In brief, the theory states the following view of the second coming of our Lord:
a) at ‘any moment’ Christ will come to the air and ‘rapture away’ all believers, who will be caught up in the air to meet with Christ.
b) at this moment the Holy Spirit will also ‘rise with the church’ and leave the world to lawlessness and delusion.
c) Anti-Christ then comes on the scene and for seven years, (some say 3½), the world is engulfed in the Great Tribulation when God pours out His wrath on the earth.
d) at the end of this seven-year period, Christ returns with His saints from heaven, destroys Anti-Christ and all His enemies, and rules on earth for 1,000 years – the millennial reign of Jesus Christ.
Many other ‘sub-points’ have been left out of the above outline of the 2-stage theory, but as one who personally was taught and believed this teaching, (I was never taught there was any other!), these are the cardinal points. Are they scriptural? Do they have clear, positive statements in the Word of God to rest upon? The preparation of this paper has utterly convinced me there is not one, single passage in the Bible that categorically teaches the secret-rapture theory. As William Rowland states in his book, “The Lord Cometh”:
“All foundation doctrine of Scripture is abundantly stated, and could be taught by us in the very words of Holy Writ without human addition or explanation. Why could not this doctrine be so declared?” (pp.10,11; The Lord Cometh, William Rowland)
If all of Scripture infers a doctrine, then there must be some place where it is unquestionably declared! This alone is a serious challenge to the secret rapture theorists. We must at the very least give earnest and careful attention to any doctrine that is given such prominence, while at the same time we must always ask, “What saith the scripture”? If the scriptures do not explicitly declare what man emphatically asserts, however forceful the emphasis, we must let the Word of God be the authoritative guide. No ‘system of interpretation’ is to over-ride the clear and plain teaching of the Bible. The Bible is to set the standard for any interpretative system. Now, what does Paul say of the second coming of our Lord?
There are two well-known passages in these two letters dealing with the Lord’s return. One in I Thessalonians 4:13 – 5:11, and the other in II Thessalonians 2:1-12. Though both letters have more than just this to say on the subject, these two passages deal exclusively with the matter at hand. As I stated earlier, I believe the secret rapture theory to be based on a confused interpretation of Scripture, therefore I will deal with it from that viewpoint.
1. The Secret Rapture Theory is based on a Confusion of Terms concerning Christ’s Coming
There is great attention paid to the different terms used in the Bible to describe the second coming of our Lord. Two-stage theorists tell us that they are descriptive of separate stages of the Lord’s coming, events that are separated by months and years. Careful and honest Bible study reveals that they are different expressions describing the same event and are used interchangeably.
Parousia – Epiphany – Apokalupsis
For instance, the Greek word parousia, (translated “coming” in I Thess. 2:19, 3:13, 4:15, 5:23; II Thess. 2:8,9), is said to refer to the secret rapture of the saints when Christ appears (invisibly to the unsaved) in the air for His saints, and ‘catches away’ His Bride – the Church. This we are told is the ‘Day of Christ’.
Another Greek word, epiphany (translated “brightness” in II Thess. 2:8, and “appearing” in I Tim, 6;14; II Tim. 1:10, 4:1,2, etc.), we are told refers to the Lord’s coming with His saints seven years later, this time to punish the world and destroy anti-christ.
Still another word, apokalupsis (translated “revealed” in II Thess. 1:7; 2:3,6,8, and “revelation” in Rev. 1:1), is used to describe the “second” (third?) coming of our Lord when He is revealed to all and comes visibly in glory and power and majesty. This second ‘appearing’ of Christ is said to be the ‘Day of the Lord’ in contrast with the first coming, which is the ‘Day of Christ’. Such interpretations of these terms leave us in a hopeless web of entanglement. Just in case there should be any doubt as to there being a distinction put between the ‘day of Christ’ and the ‘day of the Lord’ let me quote from my Scofield Reference Bible, which is the Bible I was given as a child and therefore had such an impact on much of my thinking in my early years. In his note on I Cor. 1:8 regarding the expression “the day of the Lord Jesus Christ”, Mr. Scofield has this to say;
The “day of Christ” relates wholly to the reward and blessing of saints at His coming, as “day of the LORD” is connected with judgment. (Scofield Reference Bible)
One would have to be a spiritual Houdini to escape this mess! How do these terms bear out under careful examination?
First, just as the Lord (who is always the same), is given various titles and names in the Bible, so it is not unreasonable to think that the Holy Spirit used several words to describe His day. Some of the terms used in Scripture for this day are: “the day”, “that day”, “the day of the Lord”, “the day of our Lord Jesus”, “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ”, “the great day”, “the day of God”, “the day of Christ”, and so on. It is interesting to note that in the passage in I Thess. 4:13-18, which is always presented by secret rapture theorists as descriptive of the secret rapture (which they tell us is the ‘day of Christ’), it is the “Lord himself” that “shall descend from heaven . . .”, and after “we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them (i.e. “the dead in Christ”) in the clouds”, “so shall we ever be with the Lord”. Here it is “the Lord” that is in view all the way through this event. Surely it is the ‘day of the Lord’! In fact, from 1 Thess. 4:13 to 5:11, Christ is referred to as “Lord” seven times. But what must be even more destructive to our two-stage theorists is the fourth verse of chapter five where this ‘day’ is specifically called “the day of the Lord”!
Secondly, in II Thessalonians where our secret rapture theorists say we have the full appearing of Christ at the end of the Great Tribulation, the day they tell us is the ‘day of the Lord’, what does the apostle Paul call it? The day of Christ! This is the day when Christ comes to destroy anti-christ, that man of sin. Now how does Mr. Scofield handle this? In a most interesting and fascinating manner. He says, the “A.V. has ‘day of Christ’ incorrectly, for ‘day of the LORD’” (note on I Cor. 1:8). But the Greek word is Christou, and it is rightly and accurately translated “Christ”. Mr. Scofield’s problem is not with the Authorized Version, but with the Greek text itself!
On the basis of the terms used, and the interchangability of them, we cannot accept the secret rapture theory, and especially when the day they refer to as the ‘day of Christ’ (the secret rapture of the saints) is called by Paul as the ‘day of the Lord’, and the day they tell us is the ‘day of the Lord’ (when He comes after the reign of anti-christ, seven years after the rapture), is without question described as the ‘day of Christ’!
Finally, in II Thessalonians 2:8, Paul uses the terms apokalupsis, epiphany and parousia all in one sentence.
And then shall the Wicked be revealed (apokalupsis), whom the Lord shall consume with the spirit of his mouth, and shall destroy with the brightness (epiphany) of his coming (parousia).
There is one great event, one moment in time, yet two terms used to describe it for us. Christ’s coming is in His brightness – the two terms used for the one great and blessed event, the second coming of our blessed Lord Jesus Christ.
2. The Secret Rapture Theory is based on a Confusion of Times concerning Christ’s Coming
Two-stage theorists rest their entire case on the belief that Christ will come ‘at any moment’ to rapture away His saints, and then will come the seven-year Great Tribulation which will be ended by our Lord’s full ‘appearing’ when He will return to reign supreme for one thousand years. This seven year interval is absolutely essential to the entire scheme. If it can be proven by Scripture, then the doctrine has a right to stand and hold a prominent place in our theology. If, however Scripture cannot be shown to teach this theory, or in fact teach that which would show it be grievously in error, then as honest Bible students we must consider such a scheme of interpretation of coming events as spurious and unbiblical.
First, the secret rapture theory says that Christ may come at any moment. More importantly, we are told that this was the teaching of the apostles in the early church. Did the early church believe in the ‘any-moment’ coming of the Lord? How could they? The Lord taught in His parable of the talents in Matthew 25, that the lord of those servants would return “after a long time”; He told Peter that he would live until he was “old” (John 21); Jerusalem was to be destroyed and the Israelite people scattered; Paul warned of false teachers that would come into the church “after his departure”. Not to mention that the common interpretation by dispensationalists of the seven letters to the churches of Asia, is one of chronological order, and that the Lord will return during the Laodicean ‘age’. How could John have believed in the ‘any-moment’ return of Christ on the one hand, yet teach that literally hundreds of years must pass by as the church goes through different ‘ages’ on the other? Once again we look for consistency, but find only confusion. There is great confusion over the times of our Lord’s coming in the secret rapture theory.
Second, this theory insists there will be a great apostasy of the church before the secret rapture, and then the reign of anti-christ coming after the rapture of the church. These are utterly essential elements to this scheme. To quote Mr. Scofield once again:
The order of events is: (1) The working of the mystery of lawlessness under divine restraint which had already begun in the apostle’s time; (2) the apostasy of the professing church; (3) the removal of that which restrains the mystery of lawlessness; (4) the manifestation of the lawless one; (5) the coming of Christ in glory and the destruction of the lawless one; (6) the day of Jehovah.
Note especially points (2) and (4). In between is point (3) which, we are told, happens at the secret rapture of the church.
Now let us hear the apostle Paul on the matter. “But of the times and the seasons, brethren, ye have no need that I write unto you. For ye yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night” (I Thess. 5:1,2). Paul is giving a crystal clear statement to describe the manner of the Lord’s coming – suddenly – as a thief in the night! Now if the ‘day of the Lord’ is exactly seven years following the secret rapture of the saints, how can it possibly come upon the world ‘suddenly’, unexpectedly? Where is the element of surprise in such a coming? We answer there is none, neither can there be. Paul’s whole argument here becomes worse than useless, it is outright deception if the “day of the Lord” is to follow seven years after the “day of Christ”! One interesting side-note in this verse is that Paul says there was no need for him to remind the Thessalonian believers of this truth. Therefore, they had been previously taught by Paul himself while with them several months earlier that Christ’s coming would be sudden, surprising, and this “coming” (parousia) was known as the “day of the Lord”!
Further, when Paul writes his second letter to the Thessalonian believers, it was in part to settle their hearts over some false teaching concerning this very subject. Just how the false teaching had gotten into their midst is not entirely certain, but the fact is, it had affected them to such a degree, they were “shaken in mind” and “troubled” (II Thess. 2:1)). This was a result of those who had tried to “deceive” them (v.2). Paul now settles the matter, and he does so by dealing with the time of the Lord’s return, and when is that? Speaking of the ‘day of Christ’ (v.2), he says, “. . . that day shall not come, except there be a falling away first (that apostasy), and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition”! The ‘day of Christ’ comes after the apostasy and after the revealing of the man of sin. Two events that the secret rapture theory places on either side of this rapture event, Paul says happens before the ‘day of Christ’! Who are we to believe? Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, or men arguing from confusion? On the basis of the times surrounding the Lord’s coming we cannot accept the secret rapture theory. It is shredded with one clear, statement from the great apostle himself.
3. The Secret Rapture Theory is based on a Confusion of Texts concerning Christ’s Coming
Much of the confusion of the secret rapture theory surrounds an erroneous interpretation of several passages of Scripture. (Actually the first two points of confusion could properly be included under this heading as well, but they have been dealt with in their specific area of importance to the issue). I wish to consider two texts here, one from each of these two letters to the Thessalonians.
I Thessalonians 5:9 ~ “For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Those who hold to the secret rapture theory tell us this verse is a plain foundation for their teaching. The Church will not go through the Great Tribulation, but will be ‘saved’ from it by its rapture to heaven just before it commences. Is this a proper interpretation of the text or are we once again faced with confusion at work here as well? I believe this to be another case of marked confusion in the ranks of the secret rapture theorists. Not only is this a gross misinterpretation of this text, but the Scriptures are overwhelmingly against such an interpretation of it. Here are my reasons:
a) God’s wrath is not the same thing as going through the Great Tribulation. In the inscrutable wisdom of God’s foreordination and eternal election, He has appointed that His elect shall be saved; that all whom are given to the Son shall come to Him, and none shall be cast out (John 6:37). It is the unbelieving sinner who is under God’s wrath and that is true in every age of human history.
He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him. (John 3:36)
b) The salvation spoken of in this text is not ‘escaping the Great Tribulation’. It is to be taken in its most common usage, which is our eternal salvation purchased by the substitutionary atonement of our Lord on the cross and wrought out in our hearts by the supernatural working of the Holy Spirit of God.
c) Paul is writing this letter to the Thessalonians to encourage them and stir them to greater zeal, to walk in holiness, to conduct themselves in Christian love, to be faithful and to rest in the “hope of salvation”, however fierce the opposition and furious the enemy might be! And what encouragement does he hold out before them? That “God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ”. In other words, these believers needed to know and be fully assured in the doctrine of the final perseverance of the saints – that ALL whom God saves He will surely save from hell and bring to heaven! This is a most fitting doctrine to stress in such a time as those new believers were going through. They had suffered many things for their faith (I Thess. 2:14), they were afflicted for their testimony (3:3), they knew what tribulation was all about, and had in fact been warned by the apostle that they would go through such trials of their faith (3:4). Paul, as a faithful minister to his flock desired to comfort them and tells them so (3:2), and so he sends this letter to establish them and strengthen them in the Lord. In no place does Paul take the line that God will deliver them out of their tribulation, but always the apostle’s theme is that God will see them safely through whatever earthly trials and tribulations will come upon them.
d) Those saints who will suffer under the Great Tribulation are not under the wrath of God. God calls His people in every age to live for Him. For many that means to be faithful in times of peace and civil and religious liberty. For multiplied millions more it means to carry on a testimony for the Lord under the most severe and trying of times. Daniel had to live in a time of great testing. His nation was overrun by a foreign power, he was taken captive and forced to live in the palace of a godless and heathen king, his best friends had to face a fiery furnace, he himself had to make the choice of praying to God or spending a night locked up with starving lions! And yet, God calls him, “O Daniel, a man greatly beloved”. Here is just one man who lived a life of testimony amongst much suffering and tribulation. Then what of the reformers and the millions of protestants who suffered under the tyranny of corrupt religion and evil men
And what of our day? Is there no need for the people of God to know the blessing of God’s special love and care for His church through times of great distress?
Shall I be carried to the skies on flowery beds of ease?
While others fought to win the prize and sailed through bloody seas?
Does not Paul say to Timothy, “All that will live godly in Christ Jesus, shall suffer persecution” (II Tim. 3:12)? Does God punish His people for their godliness? Is it not rather that He preserves them in their persecution? Is the church so spiritual today that she no longer needs to learn patience in suffering? Do not our dispensational friends tell us that it is the Laodicean church, the most corrupt and unspiritual of them all, that exists when the Lord comes again? How could God cause His Church to suffer the most in the ages when she shone the brightest and lived the holiest, but when she is at her lowest in spiritual life, yes in the midst of her “falling away” from the Lord, then He intercedes to ‘rapture’ her away from any trial whatsoever? In other words, here we would have a case of God’s ‘wrath’ upon His people when they were their holiest and best, and yet does not punish them for their worst apostasy in history! Such is the confused logic (?) of interpreting this text in this manner. Once again, we must let the Word of God speak in a plain and forthright manner.
Finally, in the Lord’s discourse with His disciples before the cross, He speaks to comfort them. “Let not your heart be troubled”, He encourages. Why? Because you shall never suffer tribulation? Not at all. “These things have I spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). The Christian’s comfort is not in never experiencing tribulation, but in having the presence of God to sustain and bless in the midst of it. Tribulation is not to be equated with either the wrath or condemnation of God; the two are very different matters altogether.
2 Thessalonians 2:7 ~ “For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way.”
(I am indebted to the previously mentioned book by Mr. Rowland, Our Lord Cometh, for my thoughts on this verse)
First, the interpretation of this verse by those who hold the secret rapture theory is as follows: There is right now, and even in the days of the apostle the mystery of iniquity which “doth already work”. However, there is a great restraining element to its full-blown power, and that restraint is the power of the Holy Spirit. “He who now letteth” they say, refers to the Holy Spirit. “Until he be taken out of the way”, we are told is the moment when the Holy Spirit is taken from this earth. At the rapture of the church, when all believers are silently taken away from the scene of this earth, so will the Holy Spirit be taken away as well. After this, without the restraining influence of the Spirit of God, we have the rise and revelation of anti-christ, that Wicked man of sin, the son of perdition.
Now if this is the right interpretation of the text, we must admit the secret rapture teachers have some scriptural grounds, at least in this aspect of their theory. But let’s look at the verse closely. The Greek word ‘ginomai’ is used literally hundreds of times in the New Testament and though it is translated in several different ways, this is the only time the word “taken” is used. The Greek verb means ‘to cause to be’, ‘to become’, ‘to come into being’. In fact, the word “taken” in our English Bible has no corresponding Greek word at all. Mr. Newberry rightly puts it in italics in his Bible to show this very point. To quote our friend Mr. Rowland once again, “The theory, therefore, which rests upon an English word “taken”, which English word rests upon no Greek word at all, rests simply and purely upon nothing”. (Our Lord Cometh, p.88). One of the most common translations of this Greek word is ‘to arise’. E.g. “there arose a great tempest in the sea” (Matt. 8:24), “when tribulation or persecution ariseth” (Matt. 13:21), “there arose a great storm of wind” (Mark 4:37), “there arose a great dissension” (Acts 23:7), and again, “there arose a great cry” (Acts 23:9). Never is there a case where the thing ‘arose’ by being ‘removed’! Quite the opposite is the case. The proper interpretation of this verse is now open for us to see. Right now there is a spirit of lawlessness at work in the world. It operates under a cloak of secrecy and conspiracy, but at God’s appointed time it will throw off the secrecy and come out in full view. Then that Wicked One shall be revealed as he steps out of a fully developed system of evil to take centre stage on the earth, only to be destroyed by our Lord when He returns and consumes him “with the spirit of his mouth, and shall destroy him with the brightness of his coming”.
One final note, and this has nothing to do with Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians, except it does ‘fit’ the interpretation that anti-christ shall be revealed before the Lord’s coming and that there will be NO coming, secretly ‘to the air – for the saints’ or visibly ‘in the air – with the saints’ until Christ comes to destroy His enemies. It is the great prophetic verse in Psalm 100:1. “The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand until I make thine enemies thy footstool”.
After His ascension, Christ returned to His Father and is seated there at the right hand of God. He does not leave that place of authority and privilege where He carries on His intercessory work for the Church until He comes to destroy His enemies. If Christ were to come back, even secretly to rapture away His saints, He would have to leave His throne on high and Scripture would be broken! What confusion this is. Here is One who fulfilled every detail of prophecy in its most minute aspect, right to the manner in which He died and the very activities surrounding that scene, and to His enemies He forthrightly declared that “the scripture cannot be broken) (John 10:33). It is preposterous in the highest degree to think that our infallible God, whose very character and word is Truth, should allow this prophecy concerning the order of events of His second coming to be broken, when He fulfilled all things that were spoken of His first! II Thessalonians 2:7 and all other passages dealing with the Lord’s coming and those events leading up to it, must be interpreted in a manner fully consistent with other prophetic portions of the Word of God.
We have now seen that the theory of the secret rapture of the church of Jesus Christ is a theory based on confusion of the terms used for the Lord’s coming, confusion of the times surrounding the Lord’s coming, and a confusion of the texts regarding His coming. Our God is not the author of confusion. The glorious truth of the second coming of our Lord is to comfort the believer, not confuse him. Let us study to show ourselves approved unto God, workmen that need not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth, and we will find that this wonderful doctrine is indeed a glorious comfort to our souls in a day of mass confusion and great apostasy.