The Bible and the End-time (2): 'Come, Lord Jesus'
In the last posting we noted that we are already living in the ‘last days’, the age of fulfilment. Yet, paradoxically, the age of fulfilment is also the age of the ‘blessed hope’ (Titus 2:13). The kingdom has come, but we are still commanded to pray, ‘Thy kingdom come’, driven by the apostolic assurance that, ‘no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him’ (1Cor. 2:9).
At the heart of this hope lies the Christian longing for the Second Coming of Christ. The precise phrase, ‘the second coming’, doesn’t occur in the New Testament, but then neither does the word ‘trinity’, or even the word ‘person’, yet all three have served the church well as bearers of fundamental Christian truth. Besides, the idea of a second coming is clearly implied in the angels’ words to the disciples as they watched the Saviour ascend to heaven: ‘This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.’ (Acts 1:11)
Two Messianic comings
The term, ‘the Second Coming,’ also alerts us to a fascinating difference between the eschatology of the Old Testament and the eschatology of the New. The Old Testament spoke of only one coming of the Messiah. The Psalmist, for example, called on creation to ‘sing before the LORD, for he comes, he comes to judge the earth.’ (Ps. 96:11-13. Cf. Ps. 98:7-9); and Malachi foretold a day when ‘suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his Temple’ (Mal. 3:1). As revelation unfolded, however, it became clear that what had seemed to the Old Testament to be but one Messianic coming was in fact two: first, the coming of the Messiah in servant-form, and then the coming of the same Messiah in glory. There is an analogy here with astronomy, where the development of high-performance telescopes led to the discovery that many stars which had appeared to the naked eye to be but one single point of light were in fact binary stars. Similarly, the progress of revelation makes plain that what the Old Testament saw as one single event turns out to involve both a first and a second Messianic advent.
It is because of this binary nature of Christ’s coming that we can speak, as modern scholars commonly do, of ‘the already, and the not yet’. The future predicted by the Old Testament is already here, but in another sense it is still future; the Messiah has come, the Messiah is still to come. As Geerhardus Vos put it, what the Old Testament conceived of as the age to come was later perceived to bear in its womb ‘another age to come’ (The Pauline Eschatology, p. 36)
However, this other age to come could be brought about only by another Messianic advent. It could never be the result of human evolution, or of civilisation progressing towards Utopia by its own inherent resources. It would come only when, in the words of Haggai, God once again shook the heavens and the earth (Haggai, 2:6). Nothing but the decisive, cataclysmic intervention of deity, focused in the return of the Messiah, could raise the dead, create New Jerusalem and give us a newheaven and a new earth.
In the New Testament the most common term for this return of the Messiah is ‘the Parousia.’ (1 Cor. 15: 23, 1 Thess. 4:13, 2 Thess. 2:1-3, 8-9). The core meaning of the word is ‘presence’ or ‘arrival’, but it was also widely used in the secular world to denote the official visit of a king or emperor: a meaning which is clearly appropriate to the return of Christ, who will come in person, in royal splendour, and in his official capacity as the King of Kings, to complete his work of redemption, and to judge the living and the dead. But the New Testament also uses the word ‘revelation’ (apocalupsis, 1 Cor. 1:7, 2 Thess. 1:7, 1 Pet. 1:7), to highlight the fact that the glory of Christ, now hidden from us here on earth, will on that day be fully unveiled. Then, every eye will see him (Rev. 1:7). Linked to this is the term epiphaneia, familiar to us as the English ‘epiphany’ (2 Thess. 8, 1 Tim. 6:14, Tit. 2:13), which again highlights the visual aspect of the return of Christ. For the present we have to be content with loving him without seeing him (1Pet. 1:8), grieved that the world refuses to recognise him. But in the moment of his epiphany there will be a full and magnificent disclosure of his glory as our great God and Saviour (Titus 2:13)
Yet, although three distinct terms are used, they refer to one single event. The New Testament doesn’t envisage a phased return on the part of the Saviour. Dispensationalism, however, sees things otherwise, and speaks of two (at least) second comings: one, the parousia, when Christ comes for his saints to ensure that they do not suffer in the Tribulation; then, at the end of the Tribulation, the apocalupsis, when Christ returns with his saints to set up his millennial kingdom. But this construction faces serious difficulties.
First of all, the New Testament doesn’t distinguish between a parousia of Christ for his saints and an apocalupsis of Christ with his saints. On the contrary, it specifically links the word parousia to a coming of Christ with his saints. In 1 Thessalonians 3:13, for example, Paul prays that the Lord would establish the hearts of his readers blameless in holiness before God the Father ‘at the coming (parousia) of our Lord Jesus Christ with all his saints.’ (ESV, italics added). The same connection appears in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, where Paul is stressing that those believers who are still alive at the Parousia will not take precedence over those who have already ‘fallen asleep’. Instead, he assures those grieving over loved ones that in the hour of the Parousia God ‘will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.’ (1 Thess. 4: 14, italics added).
But there is an even weightier consideration: in the New Testament, the Parousia is never a mere mid-point to be followed on the historical time-line by other events such as a tribulation or a millennium. A comparison between 2 Peter 3:4 and 2 Peter 3:10 makes this plain. The question posed in verse 4, ‘Where is the promise of his parousia?’ is answered in verse 10 by the declaration, ‘The day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.’ Here, the day of the Parousia is one and the same as the Day of the Lord, the terminal point of history, and not some transitional point to be followed by other events of equal or even greater significance. It immediately brings with it the consummation, the end of the old world and the creation of a new heaven and a new earth.
Closely linked to the idea of a two-stage return of Christ is the idea of the Rapture. As held by most Dispensationalists, this doctrine means that Christ’s first return, his return for his saints, will be secret and that its purpose will be to snatch believers up from the earth before the beginning of the Great Tribulation.
One serious problem with this is that it is by no means clear that the ‘great tribulation’ is some brief period in the future. Many distinguished thinkers have taken it to refer to the whole Christian era; others have taken it to refer to the horrors that befell Jerusalem after it fell to the Romans; and many others have hesitated to express an opinion because the Bible doesn’t give us enough information.
But whatever its precise timing, we have no reason to believe that Christians will escape it. Revelation 7: 14, for example, portrays the great multitude of the redeemed as having ‘come out’ of the great tribulation; in Matthew 24:21, Jesus refers explicitly to a great tribulation and then adds, ‘But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short’; and in verses 29-31 of the same chapter we are told that ‘immediately after the tribulation of those days’ Christ will send out his angels to gather his elect from the four winds. Such passages make clear that, however we understand ‘the tribulation’, Christians are not to be exempt from it. They are to be delivered out of it and after it, not protected from it.
It is worth noting, too, that while the doctrine of a pre-Tribulation Rapture has become a key element in the faith and piety of most modern Evangelicals, it was unknown to earlier generations of earnest Bible students. According to George Eldon Ladd (quoting S. P. Tregelles, a prominent member of the early Brethren movement) ‘the idea of a secret rapture at a secret coming of Christ had its origin in an “utterance” in Edward Irving’s church, and was taken to be the voice of the Spirit …. It was from that supposed revelation that the modern doctrine and the modern phraseology respecting it arose. It came not from Holy Scripture, but from that which falsely pretended to be the Spirit of God.’ The idea would probably have been forgotten had it not been adopted by J. N. Darby, the most gifted of the so-called Plymouth Brethren, but what really gave it worldwide influence was its endorsement by the best-selling Scofield Reference Bible (1909).
It is true, of course, that God can always cause fresh light to break forth from his word, and upon his word, but if the doctrine of a secret rapture is as fundamental to biblical Christianity as Dispensationalism maintains, it is hard to see why God kept it a secret till the 19th century.
1 Thessalonians 5:17
The precedent for the word ‘rapture’ is Paul’s statement in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 that believers who are still alive at the Parousia will be ‘caught up’ to meet the Lord in the air. He is addressing young believers perplexed to see many of their friends dying before the Parousia. Did this mean that they would miss out on the joy of that moment?
Part of Paul’s answer lies in the way he describes departed believers, referring to them, not as ‘dead’, but as those who have fallen asleep through Jesus (1 Thess. 4:14). Not only have they fallen asleep in Jesus: they have fallen asleep through Jesus, by which he doesn’t mean that between death and resurrection they exist in a state of profound unconsciousness (a sort of induced coma) but that for them Christ has modified death.
In fact, the New Testament never speaks of believers as dying. The martyred Stephen, for example, is said to have fallen asleep (Acts 7:60); the church at Corinth is said to have suffered a divine judgement in that a number of its members ‘have fallen asleep’ (1 Cor. 11:30); and here in 1 Thessalonians 4:14 departed Christians are again described as having fallen asleep. In this world they toiled and suffered and found their powers of endurance tested to the full (Heb. 12:1). But death brought relief, and more than relief. For Paul, it meant being with Christ, so that rather than being an object of dread it was an objective of longing (Phil. 1:23). In the suggestive imagery of 2 Timothy 4:6, he longs to slip his moorings, to leave this world behind, and to sail for home. He will ‘sleep’, but he will never die. This, after all, was what the Lord had promised: ‘He who believes in me will live, even though he dies’ (John 11:25). Heaven will have its ‘works’ (erga, Rev. 14:13); but they will involve neither labour nor toil. God’s service will be perfect freedom.
Paul then assures the Thessalonians that when Jesus returns, those believers who did not survive till the Parousia will be brought back with him (1 Thess. 4:14) and his very first act of will be to raise the bodies of those who have fallen asleep. Not only will they be observers of his apokalupsis it, hearing the voice of the archangel and the sound of the trumpet: they will be participants in it, each one a member of the royal retinue when the King makes his final Triumphal entry.
But what of those believers who are still living on earth when Jesus returns? They will be be ‘caught up’ to meet the Lord in the air (1 Thess. 4: 17). This is the verb (harpazō) highlighted by advocates of a pre-tribulation ‘rapture’, but in itself it has no specialist meaning. It is used, for example, of Jesus forcibly carrying away Satan’s possessions (Mt. 12:29), of the devil snatching away the seed sown on the path (Mt. 13:19), and of Paul being forcibly rescued by Roman soldiers when he was in danger of being torn in pieces by a mob (Acts 23:10). The Latin Vulgate translated it rapiemur, and this is probably the link to the idea of a ‘rapture; and a further attraction, no doubt, was that in modern English the word ‘rapture’ suggests an ecstatic transport of mind rather than a mere transport of objects. This made it easy to link the ‘rapture’ with the prospect of being ‘enraptured’; or, as we sometimes say, being ‘transported’ in a moment of self-forgetting bliss.
But the precise meaning of what is after all a common everyday verb is a minor matter. Far more important is the fact that whatever the nature of this ‘rapture’ it is not going to be secret. The King returns with a loud command reinforced by the voice of the archangel and the trumpet call of God (1 Thess. 4:16). The argument that these sounds were inaudible to all except Christian believers is, surely, special pleading. The time for the Lord to appear incognito, as in Philippians 2:7-8, is long past. Besides, the ‘rapture’ is not the only event to take place at the Parousia. As we have already seen, it is precisely at the Parousia that ‘the heavens will disappear with a roar’ (2 Pet. 3:10); and, as if that weren’t enough, it will also be both the occasion and the instrument of the destruction of ‘the lawless one’, whom the Lord Jesus will destroy by ‘the splendour of his parousia’ (2 Thess. 2:8). It is hard to believe that events of such magnitude are going to be secret.
But if the ‘rapture’ isn’t going to be secret, neither does Paul’s message in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 give us any reason to think that it will occur before the ‘tribulation’, or that its purpose will be to remove the saints from this world before the ‘tribulation’ hits it. No emphasis whatever is placed on what believers are being snatched away from. The focus is entirely on what they are being snatched away to; and though the culminating glory is that we shall meet the Lord in the air and be with him for ever, we should not overlook the phrase, ‘together with them’ (verse 17). Those separated by death from Christian family and friends are given this supreme consolation that not only will they one day be with the Lord, but they will be with the Lord together; and then they ‘shall meet to part no more.’
Above all, it is impossible to think of this as no more than a transitional moment, separated from the End by a great tribulation and an earthly millennial reign, and thus deferring the real ‘blessed hope’ to a distant future. The ‘trumpet of God’ which heralds the Parousia (and by implication the rapture) will be the last trump (1 Cor. 15:52). Beyond it there is nothing but the Judgement (Rev. 20:13), the assignation of humans, great and small, to their final destiny, and the creation of a new heaven and a new earth.
 George Eldon Ladd, The Blessed Hope (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), pp.40-41. Edward Irving was a Scottish Premillennialist who, as pastor of a London congregation, encouraged the practice of such gifts as prophesying and tongue-speaking. George Eldon Ladd (1911-82) was a distinguished American Premillennialist, but not a Dispensationalist..