In order to be orthodox there are several fundamental doctrines relating to eschatology which we must accept. We must believe in the literal second coming of Christ, the judgment, and eternal life in heaven or eternal death in hell. If we are not careful we will lose sight of these great truths and spend our time speculating on questions of lesser importance. Good men have not always agreed on the details, but they have agreed on these fundamental truths. We must never forget the religious leaders of Israel when Christ came the first time and how far they missed Him. Our loyalty must be to Him and not to our personal theories about His coming. It is sad that theories with little biblical support have often been made a test of faith. We are often the most dogmatic about theories we have not carefully studied. It would take a book to answer the question posed as the title. The author does not offer his conclusions as the last word on the subject, but in order to challenge our thinking.
Our Lord's disciples asked Him, "What will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age?" (Matthew 24:3). The disciples clearly put these two great event together in their thinking. In His answer Jesus does not make a distinction in time between His coming and the end or conclusion. He warns against growing cold spiritually and assures us that we will be tested. He tells us not to be overly alarmed about wars, famine, and earthquakes for this has been the pattern of history. Then He gives the sign that the disciples had asked for. "But he who stands firm to the END will be saved and this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations and then the END will come." "The final and proper coming of the Lord cannot take place until the whole world has been in the New Testament sense of the word, evangelized," writes W. B. Pope. (1) He promised no secret rapture before the end came. The sign of His return is to be the worldwide proclamation of the gospel. It is absurd to teach that this great revival will occur after the Church has been raptured, after the Holy Spirit hasdeparted, and that people left will be justified by a different method. But to the dispensationalist who divides Israel from the Church, it is necessary to dispose of the Church so that God can deal with Israel. Dr. John Walvoord, a leading dispensational spokesman admits, "It is therefore not too much to say that the rapture question is determined more by ecclesiology than eschatology." (2) In other words the theory that God has two peoples - the Church and the nation of Israel leads to the logical necessity of a second and a third coming of Christ. We are assured that Christ will come "the second time without sin unto salvation," but there is no clear teaching scripturally that He will come more than that.
Those who make a distinction between the "rapture" and the "revelation" also base their teaching on the use of three Greek words. Parousia is said to refer to the rapture and apokalupsisand ephiphaneia are said to refer to the revelation. However, in 2 Thessalonians 2:8 both parousia and ephiphaneia are used in the same verse to describe the same event. The blessed hope promised in Titus 2:13-14 would not be the rapture since the wordephiphaneia is used. This is also true of 2 Timothy 4:8.
Some also say Christ must first come FOR His saints in the rapture and then after a disputed length of time come WITH His saints in revelation. 1 Thessalonians 3:13 is a proof text since it uses the word "with." However, the Greek word used isparousia and by their definition this word refers to the rapture.
1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 is the most commonly used passage to support the idea of a secret rapture. It does compare His coming to a thief who comes unexpectedly, but nothing about this coming is secret. On the contrary it will be loud enough to raise the dead!
Not only do the experts disagree as to whether this rapture is to be pre-trib, mid-trib, or post-trib, but we also have partial rapturists who hold to several raptures. Only those members of their elect group will miss the tribulation period.
After surveying the major passages used to prove two phases to Christ's return, George Eldon Ladd summarized his findings:
The vocabulary used of our Lord's return leads no support for the idea of two coming of Christ or of two aspects of his coming. On the contrary it substantiates the view that the return of Christ will be a single, indivisible, glorious event. (3)
Christ declared that "the wheat and the tares are to remain together in the field until the harvest" or end of the age. The secret rapture theory teaches that all the wheat is removed and the tares left standing before the end. (4)
In addition to the weak biblical basis for the doctrine of two separate comings of Christ, it is interesting to consider the historical background of the theory. Dave MacPherson has written more than one book on the historical origin of this theory and concludes that all Christian before 1830 believed in a single unified coming of Christ. He says the secret rapture was so secret it was never heard of before a follower of Edward Irving prophesied it through the "gift of tongues." (5) In Background to Dispensationalism we read:
Even dispensationalists admit the late development of this doctrine. Walvoord admits, "This teaching was espoused of Darby and the Plymouth Brethren and popularized by the famous Scofield Bible." Ironside, in writing about the Powerscourt Prophetic conferences (of which Darby was the leader) states, "It was in these meetings that the precious truth of the rapture of the Church was brought to light. (6)
It was Edward Irving that first became convinced that the world was not moving toward better conditions, but worse. He believed that directly before man there lay a period of terrible suffering. By the year 1824 he concluded that almost all biblical prophecies had been fulfilled and the coming of the Lord could not be over a few years away. Finally his movement set the date of June 27, 1835. (7)
It was in 1830 that Margaret MacDonald, a follower of Irving, received her revelation. Darby tells about his visit to the MacDonald home in his book, The Irrationalism of Infidelity. (8) He too then began teaching a pre-trib rapture.
In conclusion, what difference does it make whether we believe in one coming or two? R. J. Rushdoony evaluates the practical result of teaching a secret rapture before the great day of Christ's return:
People who expect the world to end very soon, and are planning on being raptured out of it, are not likely to be concerned about dominion over the earth, nor the application of God's law to the whole of life. Moreover, if such people believe, as they do, that Satan rules the world, they will regard their responsibilities to the world as negligible and the world as something to escape from. (9)
Daniel Steele declared:
The effect of this teaching is, first, to belittle the Christian agencies how in operation by asserting that they are inadequate to the conversion of the world. Secondly, it gives a Jewish and highly materialistic turn to the kingdom of Christ, and leads to a depreciation of the spiritual manifestation of Christ by the Comforter in this life. Thirdly, it calls off the attention from the great saving truths of the Gospel, and leads believers to dwell upon airy and baseless speculations and profitless argumentation. (10)
Christ is coming back, but not until "this gospel of the kingdom will be preaching in the whole world as a testimony to all nations." The world's population is about 4 1/2 billion. Even if we count all the cults and Roman Catholicism we would have about one third of the world professing to be Christian. Another third have heard or had some exposure, but have never responded. the final third have never heard the name of Jesus for the first time. (11) In Psalm 2:8 Christ is promised the heathen for His inheritance and the uttermost parts of the earth for His possession. Our hope is not to escape the world through a secret rapture, but that "His Kingdom will come and His will be done on earth as it is in heaven."
1. W. B. Pope, A Compendium of Christian Theology, 3 vols. (London: Wesleyan Conference, 1880), 3:392-3. [back]
2. John F. Walvoord, The Rapture Question (Findlay, OH: Dunham Publishing Co, 1957), 15-16.[back]
3. George Eldon Ladd, The Last Things (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 57.[back]
4. George B. Fletcher, Will A Secret Rapture Precede the Second Coming of Christ? (Venice, FL: Chapel Library, n. d.). This eight page tract gives several other reasons why parousia, apokalupsis, and epiphaneia are kindred terms to describe one great future event.[back]
5. Dave MacPherson, The Late, Great Pre-Trib Rapture (Kansas City: Heart of America, 1974), 12-18.[back]
6. Clarence B. Bass, Backgrounds to Dispensationalism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1960), 41.[back]
7. Arnold Dallimore, Forerunner of the Charismatic Movement: The Life of Edward Irving(Chicago: Moody Press, 1983), 61, 73, 151,[back]
8. MacPherson, p. 13.[back]
9. R. J. Rushdoony, God's Plan for Victory: The Meaning of Post Millennialism (Fairfax, VA: Thoburn Press, 1977), 47-48.[back]
10. Daniel Steele, A Substitute for Holiness or Antinomianism Revived; The Theology of the So-Called Plymouth Brethren Examined and Refuted (1887; reprinted as Steele's Answers, Salem, OH: Schmul Publishers, 1980), 77-80.[back]
11. Paul C. Andrus, Wesley's World Parish (Salem, OH: Schmul Publishers, 1980), 98.[back]