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.
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.