Friday, April 03, 2020

Too Hot to Handle: The Rapture and the Wrath of God

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Not too long ago a major news and commentary website complained about “evangelicals’ toxic obsession with the end times”. That sort of thing is to be expected from unbelievers. But more and more, I am seeing the same kind of dismissive language used by Christians.

Tom: “Rapture” is not a term we find in the Bible, but it may be reasonably applied to the events to which the apostle Paul refers in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. Matthew Henry, whose eschatology was neither Pre-Millennial nor Pre-Tribulation, used the word “rapture” in his commentary on Thessalonians back in the early 1700s, long before J.N. Darby or others who articulated the Pre-Trib position in their own generations. For most critics of Pre-Tribulationism, the argument is not so much about whether the church will be “snatched up”, but when.

But whatever we may call it, Immanuel Can, it’s my sense that the teaching about a return of Christ for the church prior to the Great Tribulation has never been in greater disrepute among God’s people. Does that seem a fair statement?

Disrepute or Indifference?

Immanuel Can: Is it disrepute or is it just indifference, Tom? What I mean is that it seems to me the concept of the Rapture is not so much disparaged as ignored, shunted aside, deliberately avoided. And this, if I can judge aright, is because it represents a contention point with the theologies of the broader evangelical communities at a time when every effort is being exerted to blur over distinctions and merge groups in the name of unity.

Tom: Well, indifference is certainly one possible response, but it’s not one I’ve really registered. And you’re right about the doctrine being a contention point within evangelicalism, definitely. No, I’m talking about active hostility toward the doctrine and even toward those who hold it, as if we represent a sort of threat to the integrity of those who are screwing up their courage to go through the Great Tribulation. We are talking about a “way out” instead of a “way through”, and that seems like a cop-out to some.

IC: I honestly have to say that I’ve seen the former, but hardly any of the latter. Furthermore, I’ve noted that all the particulars of the future are nowadays only talked about in vague terms.

At present, all evangelicals seem to agree that at some point, there’s a Second Coming of Christ. But evangelical churches have generally given up any thought of being more precise than that. As I say, I suspect the motive is simply to escape the controversy, and to avoid appearing “divisive”.

Tom: I’m surprised to have to make the case, but maybe that’s a product of the different sort of churches with which each of us fellowships. If your church has an Amillennialist pastor, it makes sense that he would avoid raising the issue from the platform so as to avoid causing friction internally. But when you are an outsider, as I am, talking to Amillennialists and Post-Millennialists from other churches online and reading what they say to one another, the gloves are off and the punches are flying. Almost nobody is concerned about avoiding controversy, and some are quite happy to create it.

The “Secret Rapture Heresy”

But I can show you numerous internet references to the “secret Rapture heresy”. Here Darby and Scofield are said to be “in error”. That’s the very politest it gets. Here it’s implied that Pre-Trib folks lack the courage to honestly examine the evidence against their position. Here it comes from the “imaginations of men” and not the word of God. Here the “false Pre-Tribulation doctrine teaches you NOT to believe what Jesus himself taught!” Here the teaching about the Rapture is “a menacing doctrine that perverts the plain language of the text of the New Testament”. Ouch.

And there’s plenty more of the same where that came from.

IC: This is new to me. I’ve visited a few different evangelical churches in the last couple of years, and have not encountered it at all. You’re going to have to lead off on this one, Tom.

Tom: No prob. The first time I encountered it was a bit of a shock too. Then it kept coming, until eventually I came to the conclusion that we Pre-Tribbers are very much in the minority among evangelicals these days, and that there is probably some value in setting out for others the merits of a position I thought were patently obvious.

Preaching Escapism

First of all, how do you feel about the argument that believers in a Pre-Trib Rapture are simply preaching escapism?

IC: It’s irrelevant. It’s of absolutely no weight either way what we would prefer to believe … all that matters is what’s true. So that’s a very poor way to argue.

Tom: Quite true. For me, the issue boils down to how we think about the Great Tribulation. Pre-Tribbers believe the Great Tribulation is the manifestation of the wrath of God against sinners both within the nation of Israel and in the world at large. We get this from the book of Revelation, among other places, where God’s “wrath” is referred to at least fifteen times. We read about the “wrath of the Lamb”, the “wrath of God” and the “great day of his wrath” in association with things like the opening of the sixth seal, which causes a great earthquake, the darkening of the sun, a moon like blood, and every mountain and island being removed from its place.

Now of course that doesn’t mean the Great Tribulation is the only expression of the wrath of God we find in scripture, but it certainly means it is one of them, and a very prominent one.

So when we read in 1 Thessalonians that Christians “wait for [God’s] Son from heaven ... Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come,” it doesn’t seem strange to me to think that might mean something a little different than simply granting believers a pass from final judgment at the great white throne. “God has not destined us for wrath,” says the apostle, “but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him.” This is the very same language as we find in chapter 4 where the apostle speaks of believers being “caught up”.

To me, it is the person who argues that Christians will experience the wrath of God who needs to provide a logical and scriptural defense of his position, because Thessalonians explicitly says we won’t.

The Wrath of God

IC: I don’t find that the evangelical churches talk at all about “the wrath of God”, except with some reluctance, as a description of going to hell. They certainly do not speak at all about it as referring to a period of time, the Tribulation, so they never get so far as the question of who goes through it, or what purpose it serves in the plans of God. They just act as though it doesn’t exist. For them, it seems, there simply is no “Tribulation”.

Tom: Well, the final judgment is certainly the ultimate expression of God’s wrath, but the use of the term in scripture is not by any means limited to that. Quite the opposite. The word “wrath” is even associated in the gospels with the judgment of the Jews that already took place in AD70.

So all I can say is that folks who don’t associate the Great Tribulation with God’s wrath need to grab a concordance or Google the Greek words orgÄ“ and thymos. There are numerous biblical references to expressions of God’s wrath on this earth in connection with coming geopolitical turmoil, plagues and disasters unleashed on humanity with a view to bringing men and women to repentance. When mystic Babylon falls, it says God “make[s] her drain the cup of the wine of the fury of his wrath.” But that is not by any means part of the final judgment. Then there are the vial judgments of chapter 16, which are called the “wrath of God”. All these are only preliminary displays of God’s anger which take place during human history.

Deafening Silence

IC: Well, this would be my question to all those folks who think we can just ignore Revelation: at what point do you suppose these events are to take place? But since they’re not talking about any such things right now, I suspect the silence would be deafening.

Tom: Many of the critics of dispensational Pre-Tribulationism would say that much of Revelation was fulfilled in AD70 when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem. But nobody says everything in Revelation was fulfilled then, so the question then becomes how to figure out which prophecies belong to the past and which belong to the future.

But these are technical matters to be decided by comparing scripture with scripture. They hardly merit accusations of heresy or ill-intent on the part of those who teach contrary views. Certainly, some of the things that are said about Darby and people like Cyrus Scofield could be expressed with a little more reserve.

I would love to see more discussion about of Bible prophecy. I think we’re missing something important when we relegate that conversation to the internet rather than the local church.

Speaking Cautiously and Failing to Speak

IC: Yes, I agree. Since much of what is written about the future is couched in symbolism, we do well to speak cautiously, of course; but to speak cautiously does not mean to fail to speak.

Tom: It’s worth the time to get a dialogue going. I’ve been exchanging emails with a former dispensationalist who strongly disagrees with the notion of a pre-Trib return of Christ for the church, but he’s highly intelligent and interested in truth, so we got along fine once we started actually conversing rather than just throwing around the standard Post-Trib/Pre-Trib talking points. Our exchanges have been a great exercise for me, and very confirming. I don’t know that I’m going to ever change his mind, but that’s not the primary objective. If we can have a respectful exchange and both come out of it learning something, that’s worthwhile. And it’s been excellent having to deal with actual arguments rather than straw men.

IC: Yes, that’s the real way to have a debate … the productive way, the Christian way, both civil and serious, both gentle and reverent, and truth-speaking. I fear much of our discourse in Christianity of late has been (a) highly conventional, recycled from others, and (b) evasive of complex, real-world issues. It’s almost as though we feel that if we get talking about something that actually puts truth at stake that we think we’ll lose our way — as if we think the Spirit has stopped leading into truth.

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