I’m probably going to contradict myself here. In the fading nothingness that became of the new “Left Behind” film starring Nicholas Cage, I wrote a piece about the rapture and dispensationalism. In that piece, I wrote this: “Whether someone believes in the rapture or not, it may be best for all of us to primarily focus on more important matters.” This statement is probably true but my friend from college, Lee Compson, who blogs at http://missionmilford.blogspot.com was kind enough to respond and challenge me. His defense of dispensationalism (more specifically, progressive dispensationalism) can be found here. Lee is a good sport so I have decided to offer a response.
Compson (and many other Christians) hold to a pre-tribulational view of the rapture. In the end times sequence, this means the rapture will happen suddenly catapulting believers in Jesus Christ to heaven in the twinkling of an eye. Following this rather seismic event will be 7 years of tribulation featuring the outpouring of God’s wrath upon the earth and the rise of the anti-Christ (whom most pre-tribulational Christians believe will be an actual world figure). At the conclusion of the tribulation, Jesus will come back via the official 2nd coming. There will be a 1,000 year reign of Christ when Satan is bound and locked away. After this time period, the judgments occur and the book of life and the book of the dead are opened up. Sin is destroyed as is Satan and his minions and the eternal state begins.
For the sake of brevity, I will be responding only to the dispensational belief that warrants a pre-tribulational rapture and the perspective of premillennialism. As Compson alludes to, there are many different views on John Nelson Darby’s ideas and it would be unproductive to go through them all, if not impossible.
Compson discusses the historical view of how Darby’s theology became prevalent: “This view developed because of the shift towards a more-literal biblical hermeneutic. To make a very-long-and-complicated-story short, by the 1700’s, the Lutheran and Catholic faiths were the predominant religions of Europe. These ‘faiths’ were as much political parties concerned with holding and consolidating power as religions. To a lesser extent this was true of the Reformed churches as well. Once the printing press took hold and the common people had easy access to education and Scripture, the predominant allegorical approaches to interpreting and teaching the Bible were countered by Anabaptists who sought to teach and apply the Bible using a more literal and historical hermeneutic.”
And this is all well and good. Then he praises progressive dispensationalism for finding a ground that takes the hermeneutical practice of highly considering Biblical genre in interpretation: “Instead, I appreciate what Progressive Dispensationalism has done to find middle ground. It recognizes the major interpretive factors that come into play with different genres as it applies its literal/historical/grammatical interpretation.”
While I’m obviously not a Dispensationalist, I agree with Compson on his larger point here. When interpreting Scripture, taking genre into account is vital to parsing the meaning. For example, the gospels are historical accounts of Jesus but written to be persuasive to different audiences (whether the targeted audience was Greek or heavily Jewish). Paul of Tarsus’s epistles are often straightforward instruction on Christian belief and practice. What do we make of Revelation? The book indisputably falls into the prophetic genre camp. Simply, this means that the tools we use to understand Revelation and our approach to the text is very different from, say, the gospels.
Most people probably assume that the genre of prophecy immediately means futuristic predictions. This is not the case and this is a point I definitely want to underline. Prophecy can certainly foretell future happenings but, I would argue, a lot of the time it does not. Prophecy, as a genre, uses hyperbole and sometimes exaggerated language to illustrate things that have happened. Occasionally, a prophetic author will use strong language to describe a community’s relationship to God or a nation’s relationship to God. Often, the language of prophecy is highly emotional and also contains pleas/desperate calls for justice.
When we consider the genre of prophecy in this light, how does that associate with Revelation? Tradition links the authorship of Revelation to John the Apostle (there certainly is debate on that point). He was exiled to the island of Patmos which was a prison colony and proceeded to have a vision such as that he was taken up into heaven. The book is written with a strong Jewish perspective. The date of the writing is anywhere from 81-96AD (during the reign of Emperor Domitian) or sometimes later.
All of that to say in regard to the book of Revelation, I’m in the preterist camp or probably more specifically, a partial preterist. I acknowledge that some of the passages in Revelation are futuristic but most are a community’s reaction (captured by John) to the earthly destruction of their religion, culture, temple and a drastic interruption to their way of life in that time period. The First Jewish-Roman war was culminated in the Roman General Titus’s sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of the second temple (an obvious center piece to Jewish religious practice) in AD70.
Revelation is a plea for justice in the midst of intensified persecution of Jewish believers in Jesus and also newly converted Gentiles. Severe persecutions came from Rome and Emperor Nero’s garden parties where Christians were lit of fire and burned as candles in the night. Emperor Domitian and others continued the bloodshed. The apocalypse reminds us that God has all authority no matter how bad the circumstances of our existence may get. Revelation is bloody, dark and then hopeful. One day, God will bring justice and He is the perfect Judge.
In the closing chapters of Revelation, there is a powerful promise and hope: “And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:2-4, ESV)
A key point to bring up regarding reading Revelation as occurring in the Apostolic Era is the famous passage about the anti-Christ and the number “666” (Revelation 13:18- “This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666.”). There is certainly much debate upon this topic but the transliteration of “Nero Caesar” from Greek to Hebrew yields a numerical value of “666”. John very well could have been using a code for the mass persecutor of Christians, Nero the Roman Emperor.
Dispensationalists will almost always read this passage as a futuristic world leader (the head of a New World Order) who may plant computer chips in subjects in order to control and rule. They say this leader will arise in the 7 year tribulation. An important note here is: a 7 year tribulation is mentioned nowhere in Scripture. In Revelation 13:5, the First Beast uses blasphemous words and has authority for 42 months (3 1/2 years) and then the Second Beast comes along. Is the point assumed that this Second Beast will rule for 42 months as well because that is not mentioned? Why do the beasts have to be futuristic rulers rather than powerful men, in the Apostolic Era, committing horrible atrocities against God’s people?
Shifting gears away from Revelation, 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18 is also used to support a rapture. Here is the passage: “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” (ESV)
When one reads this passage, there are some notable things that Paul does not say. He does not talk about a rapture before a 7 year tribulation. Why can’t this passage simply describe the Second Coming itself without any charts, graphs or extensive timelines?
A final major point that I want to bring up is the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only...Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” (Matthew 24:36,44). This is a vital passage because with all the end times predictors we have, Jesus Himself states (within context, seemingly about the final apocalypse) that no one can know the date or time of when this event will occur.
If a person believes in a pre-tribulational rapture, then they will know exactly when Jesus will appear in glory. That would be 7 years from the rapture. This does not fit with Scriptures declaration of the Apocalypse as being for the knowledge of the Father and Christ.
Harold Camping, the late Christian broadcaster, predicted the rapture to occur on May 21, 2011. I was at work that day at my insurance office in Ballard. The rapture never happened. Popular bluegrass, folk group “Nickel Creek” wrote a song about the non-happening. Camping, probably a little bewildered, stated that his projections were off and the rapture would happen on October 21, 2011. That date came and went.
People make predictions and draw up charts. Inventing schemes and theological systems, many seek to impose these on the Bible in a valiant attempt to make these pre-conceived notions fit the text. Most of the time, they don’t fit. As much as people want to know what will happen to the world and when, we cannot know. The fact of that statement should cause us to trust in God for things only He can know.