January 7, 2014

The Rapture—A Necessary Inference

Steven HayesBy Dr. Steven Hayes
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With the rise of Dispensationalism in the 19th century, the use of a literal (i.e., grammatical-historical) hermeneutic to interpret Scripture began to be employed in an increasingly consistent manner in all areas of Biblical revelation. This new (or renewed) consistency in the use of a literal hermeneutic naturally led to new insights in many areas of theology. As an example, a literal hermeneutic applied to prophetic passages in the New Testament led students of the Bible to conclude that the Rapture of the Church was a phase of the return of Christ that had to be distinguished from the 2nd Coming. That is, the yet future return of Christ will actually be comprised of two distinct events separated in time: 1) the Rapture of the Church, in which Christ comes in the air to receive His Bride and take her back to heaven with Him (e.g., John 14:1-3; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18), and 2) the 2nd Coming, in which Christ comes from heaven with all His saints to establish His kingdom on this present earth and personally reign over it for a thousand years (e.g., Matthew 24:30; Revelation 19:11-16; 20:4-6).

From its inception the idea that the future return of Christ would be comprised of two phases received two principal criticisms. First, that there was no place in the New Testament that explicitly taught that there remained two future "comings" of Christ, separated in time; thus, such an understanding was based on inference alone. Second, that this understanding of the return of Christ was a "new" doctrine; since it had never before been taught or believed by Christians of previous generations (neither the Reformers, nor the Church Fathers before them), it was very unlikely to be true. These two criticisms will each be briefly addressed.

Rapture

The Rapture—A Necessary Inference

Regarding the first criticism, it is obvious that nowhere in the New Testament is it explicitly asserted that there remain two future "comings" of Christ. The understanding that there are to be two comings, a Rapture event that is distinct and separated in time from the 2nd Coming proper, is indeed an inference. Nevertheless, it is a necessary inference! A rapture event distinct from the 2nd Coming is a necessary inference from all the New Testament passages regarding the return of Christ, some of which reveal He will come for His saints in the air and return with them to heaven (Rapture), others that He will come with His saints from heaven to the earth (2nd Coming). There must be two phases to this return, separated in time, since all that is said concerning it cannot be fulfilled in a single event. This is entirely analogous to the Old Testament passages regarding the Coming of Christ. Nowhere in the Old Testament does it say that there would be two Comings of Christ (Messiah). However, revelation is given of Messiah suffering and dying for the nation (e.g., Psalm 22; Isaiah 53), along with revelation of Messiah setting up His kingdom on earth and reigning over it forever (e.g., Psalm 2; Daniel 2:44; Zechariah 14:9). These two bodies of revelation could not be fulfilled in a single "Coming", so from the Old Testament perspective it was a necessary inference that Messiah would come twice [1] (i.e., the 1st Coming and the 2nd Coming proper; since the Rapture exclusively pertains to the Church, it was a mystery unrevealed in the Old Testament).

Regarding the second criticism, it is conceded that the notion of a Rapture that is distinct and separated in time from the 2nd Coming was a new understanding that emerged in the 19th century as a result of Dispensational Theology's emphasis on the use of a literal hermeneutic in prophetic passages of the Bible. The earlier/classical Dispensationalists, including Darby, Scofield, and Walvoord, were all honest in admitting that Dispensationalism's doctrine of the Rapture was a new understanding of Scripture not held by the Reformers or Church Fathers [2]. While many today are expending great energy in an attempt to find quotations from early Christian writers that indicate they believed in a Rapture that was distinct from the 2nd Coming, there is no necessity to do so. Even if a few such genuine quotations are found [3], it will only serve to highlight the truth that Dispensationalism's doctrine of the Rapture was an extreme, minority view held by virtually no one prior to the modern era. But this in no way negates the validity of the doctrine. Remember, the vast majority of Jewish believers failed to properly infer that the Old Testament taught Messiah must come twice, including the disciples of the Lord Himself, for which He rebuked them rather harshly (cf. Luke 24:25-27)!

Conclusion

In summary, Dispensationalism's doctrine of the Rapture as distinct and separated in time from the 2nd Coming is a necessary inference from Scripture. The fact that it is an inference in no way relegates it to being a second-class doctrine, nor does it mean that we cannot have full assurance of its certainty. Furthermore, the fact that this particular doctrinal truth has only been recognized rather late in this present age is not a valid argument against its veracity. God's truth has been available on the pages of Scripture from the very moment it was recorded, but as Dr. Hannah notes "it is apparent that doctrinal development has taken place over the centuries and will continue to do so" [4]. Brethren, let's boldly proclaim the doctrine of the imminent return of our Lord Jesus Christ (i.e., the Rapture) as the blessed hope of the Church (Titus 2:13)!

Endnotes

[1] Some ancient Jewish rabbis, struggling to reconcile these two bodies of revelation regarding Messiah, postulated that there would be two Messiahs, a Messiah "ben Joseph" who would come to die for the nation, and a Messiah "ben David" who would come to reign over the nation. Obviously this was not correct, but it nevertheless demonstrates their recognition that not all the revelation given in the Old Testament regarding the Coming of Messiah could be fulfilled in a single event.

[2] Although it is generally conceded by virtually all Church historians that the Church was predominantly Premillennial in eschatology for its first three centuries (until Augustine).

[3] Most such quotations that are offered are of a rather vague character, open to various interpretations.

[4] John Hannah, Our Legacy: The History of Christian Doctrine (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2001), 27.


 


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