The Main Verses: Matthew 24:36-44 Continued
There is no doubt in my mind that this passage is a second coming passage. There is also no doubt in my mind that the language of “one taken…another left” in Matthew 24:40-41 is apposite to the present discussion. In the surrounding context Jesus refers to a gathering up together (episounazousin) of the elect (24:31). So Jesus does speak of a removal of saints. But is this “taking out” to be understood as the being “taken” a few verses later? I think there is a real possibility that it should.
Perhaps most dispensationalists say that those “taken” are taken to judgment. In verse 39 those who didn’t make it into the Ark (because they couldn’t be bothered to go) were taken away by the flood waters. But from my reading of the Second Coming passages in Isaiah 63:1-6, Malachi 3:2 and 4:1-2, and Revelation 19:11-21, it does not appear to be such a good idea to be “left” hanging about. This agrees with the flood story, where it was infinitely preferable to be removed to safety in the Ark than to be left to face the elements. Further, in Revelation 14:14-16 the earth is reaped of the saints, “the harvest [which is a good image] of the earth,” before the wicked are gathered to “the winepress of the wrath of God” in terms too reminiscent of Isaiah 63 to ignore. Thus, Revelation 14 should not be overlooked in the discussion of this passage.
John Hart of Moody Bible Institute argues that Matthew 24:29-31 is about the Second Coming proper while verses 32-44 are about a pretribulational rapture. His essay is quite ingenious, but, like so much minute exegesis, rests upon petitio principii.The very reason for the investigation is to prove that the exegete’s position is possible. This often relies on converting certain words into technical terminology.
In short, Hart proposes that the shift in verse 36 indicated by the peri de (“but concerning,” which seems to hark back to at least verse 21 and following) changes the outlook from the end of the Tribulation and (back to?) a pretribulational perspective. Hart also thinks the “normalcy” depicted in verses 38-41 is hard to reconcile with posttribulational circumstances, but easier to envisage prior to the Tribulation. My take is that life goes on pretty much as usual, even allowing for the awful conditions, for a lot of folks in the Tribulation (cf. Matt. 24:48-51, Rev. 18:9-19), at least in terms of the items Jesus mentions.
Of course, if Hart’s version is true then Paul’s rapture teaching in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 is no new doctrine (as Hart agrees); Paul just hasn’t informed them about it yet. They know about the Tribulation well enough, but the Apostle has not brought them up to speed on the rapture.
I find these reasons completely unconvincing. Using the Rules of Affinity I would class the peri de argument for pretribulationism a C4. It is too subtle to be persuasive and it presupposes what it needs to prove. The circumstantial argument seems plausible on the face of things, but just because people will be living their lives as best they can at the end of the Seventieth Week does not mean all is well. This commits the Either/Or fallacy. It gains some purchase with 1 Thessalonians 5:3, but there is still work to do to link it strongly to just prior to the Tribulation. It is a possible inference and hence a C3. But then, I would argue, a posttribulational “taking out” is a stronger C3, especially when coupled with Revelation 14:14-16. For one thing, it does not read a hitherto unknown doctrine involving the as yet non-existent NT Church (cf. Jn. 7:39) into the context of Matthew 24. And remember, these disciples asked Jesus if He was going to restore the kingdom to Israel in Acts 1:6. I can scarcely see them doing that if they knew about the rapture of the Church prior to that! So Jesus’ teaching (on Hart’s view) is too subtle for the disciples.
I must move on, but I think a pre-trib interpretation of any verses in the Olivet Discourse is difficult to countenance. We will have to return to this passage further on.
2 Thessalonians 2:3
If this is a rapture verse then apostasia (“falling away” or “rebellion”) must mean “taken away,” which must mean “caught away.” I know that there are some out there who convince themselves that this points to the pretrib rapture, but they have not convinced me (nor a good many of their fellows). The verse makes better sense when the usual meaning of the word is retained. One may dispute who rebels, (I think it is a general slump into disbelief), but to make them non-rebellious candidates for a rapture again begs the question. If the “falling away” is identified with taking the mark or following the Beast this verse could be commandeered to serve a midtrib position.
2 Thessalonians 2:13
The rapture version of this seemingly soteriological verse comes about as a result of making soteria mean something like “deliverance” in this context. But it is simply too obtuse to be considered as a serious rapture passage. The excruciating lengths which have to be gone into to produce the possibility that Paul is referring to the rapture, plus its reliance upon a doctrine already supposedly proven, push the limits of credulity. Besides, this view sidesteps the pretrib problem text in chapter 1:5-10 which employs OT imagery and appears to naturally invoke the posttribulational return of Christ in vengeance.
I know there are other passages, and I’m sure we’ll run into them, but this verse is often used to bolster pretribulationism (notably by Paul D. Feinberg). It reads:
Because you [the Philadelphian saints] have kept the word of My patience, I also will keep you from [tereso ek] the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole earth, to test those who dwell upon the earth.
If we allow, as is plausible, a proleptic application to Christians in the future, then the “keeping out” of the coming trial (peirasmou) would fit a rapture, and indeed a pretribulational rapture. This is helped by the fact that this “keeping out” is connected to the “hour,” and therefore the time of the event. This understanding of Revelation 3:10 is a C3 scenario.
(More to come…)
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.