Trying to Get the Rapture Right, Part 1

I had been intending to write about the removal of the Church (the rapture) for quite a while now. What galvanized me to do so now was a couple of entries by Ben Witherington and Roger Olson about the pretribulational rapture. These men, (like them or not), do not usually write poorly, but their articles attacking the concept of the pretribulational rapture are pretty lame ducks, rehashing the same old populist presentations of Dispensationalism by sniping at Clarence Larkin’s charts, and bringing into the frame the names of Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye, only to mock them.

Now let me be clear about this, although I am a pretribultionist, I am not about to contend for the parity of the doctrine of the rapture and its timing with the doctrine of the Trinity, or justification by grace through faith. I will not die on a hill fighting for the timing of the rapture, be it pre-, mid-, prewrath-, or post-tribulational.

But something needs to be said. Olson says he read Dwight Pentecost’s Things To Come when he was 19 or 20 and was unconvinced. No problem. But he also claims Pentecost’s book is about the rapture. He says,

Seeds of doubt about the rapture were planted in my mind by a book that was supposed to offer biblical and theological support for it—Things to Come by dispensationalist theologian Dwight Pentecost. I read it when I was nineteen or twenty and sensed something was wrong. Why would it take hundreds of pages of convoluted exegesis and argument to establish something so simple?

The answer, as anyone familiar with the book is well aware, is “it wouldn’t and it didn’t.” Pentecost wrote about biblical eschatology, which, as Olson knows, involves a good deal more than the rapture. The trouble is (and I understand this), there is an almost visceral reaction to the populist presentations of the rapture by many—and Witherington and Olson are examples.

In a sense, I don’t blame them. Books about prophecy from a pretrib perspective commonly come with covers sporting an eclipse (lunar or solar, either will do); sometimes a dragon or two. Whole ministries exist to promulgate sometimes simplistic versions of dispensational premillennialism, occasionally tainted with American exceptionalism. When John Hagee writes about the “four blood moons” we are not really surprised. There is always a ready market for “signs of the times” books and newspaper exegesis. I distance myself from such things. I distance myself a little even from those good men who can scarcely write an article about anything unless pretribulationism or pre-wrath or what-have-you has some space allotted to it.

Nevertheless, I am irritated a bit when Dispensationalism or pretribulationism is given short shrift by Christians because they think that if they can plaster the names of Lindsey or LaHaye over it they have have dealt with it. To be fair to Olson he does share some of his experiences with the more vulgar expressions of the doctrine, but he never deals with the biblical arguments. He simply says it’s not biblical. I wonder how he would react if Arminianism was dispatched in such a manner?

Witherington informs us (in this video) that Matthew 24 is one of the main proof-texts for the rapture. That is surprising to hear since I know of scarcely any dispensationalist who teaches that it is (actually I am open to a possible association with Revelation 14, but deny that it has anything to do with the rapture of the Church). In point of fact, dispensationalists nearly all teach precisely what Witherington teaches about the text! How could he not know this?

Regarding 1 Thessalonians 4, Witherington says that it depicts a welcoming entourage who go out (or up) to meet the returning Christ before he reigns on earth. This is a good interpretation and is one of the challenges to the pretribulational position. It ought to be heeded though that this interpretation relies upon extra-biblical materials.

What I want to do in the coming weeks, though probably at intervals, is to set out some arguments for pretribulationism and compare them with the other positions on the rapture of the Church. To help me to do this I will be making use of the Rules of Affinity, whereby I designate the doctrine of the rapture a C3 doctrine: that is, a doctrine which has no direct scriptural proof but which is an inference to the best explanation of the assorted data pertaining to the rapture which is found throughout the Bible.

The Meaning of Harpazo

To start things off we’ll take a quick look at the word from which we get the term “rapture.” That way, we can have a baseline to work from.

The Greek verb harpazo means “to snatch away, to seize, or steal (in the sense of grab).” Other than the central rapture text in 1 Thessalonians 4:17, harpazo is used in Acts 8:39 to refer to the relocation of Philip: “the Spirit of the Lord caught Philip away.” It is also used by Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:2 and 4 to describe his (see 12:7) experience of being “caught up” to the third heaven. We see it again in Revelation 12:5 of the male child (Christ) “who was to rule all nations,” Who was “caught up to God and His throne.” In 1 Thessalonians 4:17 we read:

Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up (harpagesometha) together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord.

As the commentaries all recognize, the idea behind the verb implies force and suddenness. The big question is, when will this snatching up occur? That will be the question we’ll be considering in this series.

10024 reads

There are 8 Comments

Ron Bean's picture

I'm looking forward to reading more.

Having grown up in dispensational circles over the last 60 years, all I ever heard or read about dispensationalism was what the author labels populist. (I even had one of those "In Case of Rapture This Car Will Be Without a Driver" bumper stickers.) The Pre-Mill and Pre-Trib position was treated as a fundamental of the faith and adherence to it and Scofield's seven dispensations was a requirement. Even to the point of the seventh dispensation being that of "Grace" and not "The Church". I never saw the more temperate and modified version of dispensationalism until the last few years. It probably describes my personal position; the same position that caused my more militant brethren to doubt my fundamentalist credentiols.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

TylerR's picture



You make a real good point!

The whole issue of the Rapture is bottled up with the larger presuppositions a person brings to the whole of Scripture. The issue really isn't in the individual NT verses; it's in the presuppositions, the theological baggage we bring to the table that drives our interpretation of these verses:

  1. Do the covenants mean what they say?
  2. Do the covenants therefore mean that God has a future for Israel?
  3. Do the prophets give details of the Tribulation?
  4. If so, who is the Tribulation for?
  5. Is the Church a distinct entity, complementary but distinct from Israel, in God's plan for redeeming His creation?
  6. If so, is there any indication that the Tribulation (assuming one agrees that it will happen!) is a time of trouble for the Church?

These and many more are the baggage a person brings to the table when you look at the various NT verses. This means a real discussion of the rapture will involve a whole lot of background work beforehand. Unfortunately, this kind of necessary background work doesn't sell books or movie tickets. That means all we're left with is John Hagee, Left Behind, and the bumper stickers Ron mentioned.

I've read Fee and Morris (among others) on the Thessalonians Epistles. Their objections to 1 Thess 4:13-18 are bad. Real bad. They don't seem to be aware that men like Hiebert (and others) have reasoned, intelligent and real arguments. There is an amazing hubris in the academy against intelligent dispensationalism.

I've read Reymond's Systematic. In his section on eschatology, he spews venom against dispensationalism at length. Do you know how many dispensationalist works he cited in the footnotes? Just. One. The Scofield Reference Bible, and he cited it once. Pathetic. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Brian Dempsey's picture

I grew up in a Calvary Chapel, and my family "went Fundie" when I was 13. I was taught much the same as above- all doctrines are equal, and we are equally right about all of them (imagine my confusion and fear when I found that all the movies and music I had been exposed to as a child were actually moral evils against the God of Heaven....Oh, and I had been using the wrong Bible version). I have come a long way since then and would consider myself within the realm of "progressive dispensationalism" (though I am not willing to claim all that goes with that label). I am reviewing a book currently on Revelation in plain language that simply ascribes a "normal" rapture position to a popular viewpoint without scholarly backing. Because this issue is not high on my list of doctrines to be defended, I have not done my due diligence in studying it out to the degree that I probably should (I'm 34 and three and a half years into senior pastoral's been a little crazy). So, I am glad that you are taking this issue on...I will be reading closely!

Brian Dempsey
Pastor, WBC
I Cor. 10:31


James S. Lowery's picture

Knowing that you are a humble man, and that you 'keep your finger on The Text,' I'm looking forward to this series.

A few years ago I did some extensive study of eschatology, especially as it affects The Church. I hope you'll address the issue of the relation of The Church to the words used to describe the wrath of God. (And I'm not talking about the so-called 'Pre-Wrath' position.) I agree with TylerR that  clear understanding will come only with much background work. Perhaps God arranged it that way so we wouldn't be looking for an event, but a Person.

I once served for several years on the Ordination Council of a District organization for a major 'denomination' which had an unspoken position on the timing of the rapture favoring "pre-trib." Candidates who came in with 'mid-' or 'post-' positions were warned that they would be taken in the order of their belief. That comment led to some chuckles . . . and often to a re-thinking of their positions.

Jim Lowery

Rom. 5:8-11

Steve Newman's picture

I agree that the anti-dispensational viewpoint is spewing a lot of venom today and much of it is directed at "straw men" like Lindsey, LaHaye, etc. There is some good and scholarly writing on the subject from theologically sound dispensationalists such as Ryrie. I also greatly appreciate the rules of affinity!

Ed Vasicek's picture

Paul, I am admittedly one of your biggest fans.  

I really like Witherington at times, but I hate when anyone sets up straw men, and I hate misrepresentations.

I deal with some of these issues in my book, The Amazing Doctrines of Paul As Midrash.

I am among those, however, who believes that the rapture is indicated in Matthew 24.  Like the Sermon on the Mount, I believe we have 10 minutes of summary of at least 2 hours and probably 4 of Jesus' Olivet Discourse.  If all Jesus' said wsa recorded in Matthew 24-24 (or the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7), I could understand why someone would say Matthew 24 does not contain the rapture.  By the same token, I can also understand coming out as a pacifist reading the Sermon on the Mount.

Be that as it may, I am getting tired of caricatures of Dispensational scholars -- (yes, we do have them, and Pentecost, Ryrie, Walvoord, Showers, Fructhenbaum, and House are among them) -- as idiots.  If you have the truth, you don't need straw men and you don't need to mock your opponents.



"The Midrash Detective"

josh p's picture

Really looking forward to the series Paul. I agree that most interaction with Dispensationalism is mostly straw men and ad hominem. Maybe Dispensationalists have focused on eschatology too much but there was so much work to be done. Get going on that Systematic Paul!

Paul Henebury's picture

Thanks for the comments.  I have been out of town and I try not to do internet work on those occasions.  I hope that these posts will address the issues which some of you have brought up - esp. Matt. 24 and "wrath".  I understand you may not agree with my conclusions, but perhaps the questions I ask will be of help?


God bless,


Paul H

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Help keep SI’s server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.