RAPTURE IN 1 THESSALONIANS 4?

PMT 2017-082 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

One of the key doctrines of populist dispensationalism is the doctrine of the secret Rapture. It is also one of the most familiar. Who has not see an “In Case of Rapture This Car Will Be Unmanned” bumper sticker? Just this very month a major warning of the Rapture was picked up on by the news media, creating much embarrassment for the evangelical Christian faith.

The Odd Problem

Oddly enough, one of dispensationalism’s major proof-texts for this bizarre doctrine is 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18. Yet this passage does not even suggest the doctrine, despite its popularity in the debate.

John Walvoord feels that “a careful study of this passage in 1 Thessalonians will do much to set the matter in its proper biblical revelation,” demonstrating “the difference between the Rapture of the church and Christ’s second coming to judge and rule over the earth.” [1]

Another dispensationalist author comments that “this is undoubtedly the primary passage on the Rapture of the Church.” [2] Benware agrees: “without a doubt this is the central passage on the rapture of the church.” [3] As with all orthodox, evangelical, non-dispensationalists I believe that this passage refers to the visible, glorious, second advent to conclude history, not an invisible rapture removing believers in preparation for setting up another redemptive-historical era (the great tribulation followed by the millennium).

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On the very surface it is remarkable that one of the noisiest verses in Scripture pictures the secret rapture. Paul says:

“For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first” (1Th 4:16).

By all appearance, this seems emphatically to be a very public event, even if we do not take these elements as literal trumpet blasts and loud audio vocalizations. [4] Besides, this event involves millions of physical resurrections and the transformation of millions of living believers, removing them from the world. This must have a public impact.

In addition, the passage teaches that “so shall we ever be with the Lord.” It says nothing of Christians going with him to heaven for seven years, then returning to the earth to rule in a thousand-year millennium, then returning back to heaven. Some (not all) dispensationalists hold that: “The locale of their future is not permanent as they will be in heaven during the time preceding the Second Coming [i.e., during the seven-year great tribulation]. They will be on earth during the millennial kingdom.” [5] If this is such a “significant” passage for the dispensational view, why are not the dispensational distinctives found here?

The Attempted Defense

Despite dispensational arguments, that it does not mention the resurrection of the wicked here does not suggest there will be two resurrections or two distinct comings of Christ. The reasons the resurrection of the wicked does not appear here are:

First, he resurrection of the righteous and the wicked operate on different principles. The righteous are in Christ; their resurrection is to glory. The unrighteous may not expect such glory at the resurrection, for theirs is “a resurrection of judgment” (Jn 5:29).


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Second, Paul’s purpose is not to deal with all the implications of the resurrection. Rather, as Walvoord himself admits: “Though this passage is more informative concerning the nature of the Rapture, it is designed to be an encouragement to those who are living for Christ.” [6] Paul is comforting Christians regarding their deceased loved ones. If a glorious millennium lay in the future, it would seem that he should mention that here as a word of comfort. But, rather than that, Paul places all believers in the presence of the Lord forever, not for a seven year tribulation period.

Let us hear no more of this noisy verse used as evidence of a secret Rapture.


Notes

1. John F. Walvoord, Prophecy Knowledge Handbook, 481.

2. Stanton, “Biblical Evidence for the Pretribulational Rapture.” Biblical Perspectives 4:4 (July/Aug. 1991): 2.

3. Paul Benware, Understanding End Times Prophecy, 159. See also: Popular Encyclopedia of Biblical Prophecy, 309. Dictionary of Premillennial Theology, 338.

4. Remarkably, Walvoord, a dispensational literalist, even allows the possibility that the “clouds” may be figurative allusions to the great numbers of saints involved! Walvoord, Prophecy Knowledge Handbook, 484.

5. Walvoord, Prophecy Knowledge Handbook, 484.

6. Walvoord, Prophecy Knowledge Handbook, 484.

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