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Questioning the Doctrine of the Rapture

Marcelo is the pastor of Iglesia Conexiones, and the author of Biblical Prayer for Today's Believers: Transform Your Prayer Life.

Introduction

I remember having a dream about the rapture. I could see several people rising in the air, and the Lord was waiting for them in the sky. Eventually, I went up too :)

I've been taught all my life that the rapture will take place before the tribulation. Like many believers, I look forward to the day when we will finally be with our Lord.

Some years ago, I met Christians who believe the rapture will occur in the middle of the tribulation. I don’t think I ever understood the reasons of these strange people.

Recently, I have been questioning the whole doctrine of the rapture. I concluded that most of what I was taught about it is wrong—and now I don’t know what to believe about it. During that time, I learned that two of my favorite Christian scholars do not believe in the rapture: Dr. William Lane Craig and Dr. Michael Brown. However, John McArthur believes in a pre-tribulational rapture, which is very encouraging.

In this article, I’m going to take a close look at what the Bible says about the rapture. I don’t know what my conclusion will be, so I’m excited. I hope you are too.

Those Caught Up to Heaven

I have heard pastors preach that the rapture is represented in the Old Testament by Enoch, Noah, and Elijah; and by the Lord Jesus Christ and the apostle John in the New Testament. Let's start with them, and we’ll also add Lot to the group.

Enoch

"Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him." (Genesis 5:24, KJV)

This is all we know about Enoch's “rapture.” Notice that we aren't even told where God took him. Sure, we can say that He obviously took Enoch to heaven, but Genesis doesn’t say this: we’re just making an assumption based on our doctrinal views.

Surely, no one who read these verses in Moses' times would have come to a conclusion that this incident represented the pre-tribulational rapture of the church—they didn’t even know what a church was!

Nevertheless, we do learn something valuable: someone who enjoyed a close relationship with God was taken by God, he was nowhere to be found, and this event was a good thing.

Noah & Lot

Noah and his family (along with hundreds of animals) escaped the waters of the flood in an ark, and Lot was allowed to escape the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

"If [God] did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; 6 if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; 7 and if he rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked 8 (for as that righteous man lived among them day after day, he was tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard); 9 then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment...." (2 Peter 2:5-9, KJV)

No one went to heaven in the accounts of Noah and Lot. However, Peter does derive an important lesson from these two accounts: God rescues the godly from trials.

Elijah

In regards to Elijah's rapture, here's what the Bible says:

“1Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal.... 11And as they still went on and talked, behold, chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.” (2 Kings 2:1,11, KJV)

Elijah's rapture is a unique experience in the Bible--a very unique and awesome experience. However, it is nothing like what we think the rapture of the church will be: we're not expecting to go up to heaven in a whirlwind, much less in chariots of fire.

However, Elijah's rapture does give us some new information: it tells us Elijah went to heaven. Obviously, God wasn't taking Elijah up to the sky, where the clouds are. He was taking Elijah up to heaven, that very special place where God is.

Jesus

The Lord's ascension is a lot more like what we think the rapture will be.

"So then after the Lord had spoken unto them, he was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God." (Mark 16:19, KJV)

As you can see, the Gospel of Mark gives us more detail than the previous accounts: once in heaven, Jesus sat at the right hand of God.

The gospel of Luke, on the other hand, does not give us as much detail.

"And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven." (Luke 24:51, KJV)

Nevertheless, the most detailed account of the Lord's ascension is in the book of acts Acts.1:9-11.

"And when he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight. 10 And while they looked stedfastly toward heaven as he went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel; 11 Which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven." (Acts 1:9-11, KJV)

As you can see, Luke adds more details in his second book: a cloud, two angels, and a prophecy of his return.

John and Ezekiel

Beside the ascension of these men, there are pastors who see John's ascension to heaven in the book of Revelation as a foreshadowing of the church's rapture, but this is unlikely.

“After this I looked, and, behold, a door was opened in heaven: and the first voice which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me; which said, Come up hither, and I will shew thee things which must be hereafter. 2 And immediately I was in the spirit: and, behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne.” (Revelation 4:1-2, KJV)

As you can see, John's ascension was neither a physical one nor a permanent one. John's spirit ascended to heaven temporarily to see visions, but history tells us John was still on Earth after he wrote the book of Revelation—he didn't stay in heaven.

John's spiritual ascension to heaven is more reminiscent of Ezekiel's vision (Ezekiel 1:1). Both Ezekiel and John saw heaven open, and this allowed them to see revelations, but neither of them stayed in heaven, as Enoch, Elijah, and the Lord Jesus did.

Comparison

As you can see, the experience of ascending to heaven became more complex as time went on—more information was given every time someone went to heaven.

If we put aside John’s and Ezekiel’s spiritual experience, we see can see that the ascensions of Enoch, Elijah, and the Lord do show that people can ascend to heaven. However, it is important that we realize that none of these ascensions show that people are taken to heaven to spare them from trials or tribulations (what we call a rapture).

You may have heard that Enoch was taken up to heaven to spare him from the flood, but that’s not true: Enoch was taken up to heaven 669 years before the flood (he was taken on the year 365 of his life, and the flood occurred on the year 600 of Noah’s life).

In regards to Noah and Lot, their experiences do show that God rescues the godly from trials. However, their experiences are not related to any ascension. It makes sense, then, that Peter does not teach the rapture in his epistle. His main point is that false teachers will be judged by God, and he mentions in passing—without giving us details—that God will deliver believers in Christ (2 Peter 2:4-10). This kind of deliverance does not necessarily point to the rapture. Lot was delivered by being guided out of Sodom, and Noah was delivered through the ark—neither of them was delivered by a rapture.

Checking Out The Main Passages In John

There are Bible passages that speak more clearly about concepts we associate with the rapture. Let us take a look at these passages to see what they say.

John 12

The first of these passages is John 12:26. Jesus said, “If any man serve me, let him follow me; and where I am, there shall also my servant be: if any man serve me, him will my Father honour.” (John 12:26, KJV)

Clearly, in this passage, Jesus says that his servants will be where he is. But, where is Jesus? Jesus is in heaven. We know this from this same passage because Jesus has declared that the hour has come for him to be glorified—by his glorification, the Lord does not mean his crucifixion, but his ascension (John 12:23). In this passage, Jesus did not only have his crucifixion and death in mind, but he also had in mind his resurrection and the time when he would no longer be on Earth, which is clearly the time after his ascension (John 12:35, 36).

There is an absence of details in this passage, but we can at least see that the Lord expects his disciples to be with him in Heaven sometime, for heaven is where the Lord has been since his ascension.

John 14

Another important passage concerning this message is John 14:2-3. Jesus said, “2 In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also” (John 14:2-3, KJV).

In this passage, the Lord clearly states that he is going to the Father’s house. He had already said to his disciples that He would be glorified soon and that the Father would glorify Him straightway (John 13:31-32). Moreover, he told his disciples that they could not come where he was going (John 13:33), and He also told them that He was going to the Father (John 14:6, 12). It is clear, therefore, that the Lord was taking about his ascension.

In this very important passage, the Lord declares to his disciples that he goes to the Father to prepare for them one of the many rooms that are in the Father’s house (John 14:2-3). He also promises them that He will not leave them comfortless, that He will return, and that He will take them to Himself so they may be where He is (John 14:3, 18, 28)—what a wonderful promise!

But the Lord is not very specific about when this will take place. Note however, that—in the same gospel—He does warn his disciples that they will have tribulation (John 16:33).

However, the disciples died centuries ago, and the Lord didn’t return to take them to Himself. Does this mean He broke His promise, forgetting about them? Of course not! The same gospel of John allows for the death of Peter and John (John 21:17-24)—and if Peter and John could die before the Lord returned for them, why can’t anyone else die before the Lord returns for us?

Nevertheless, as we consider these verses and other related to them, a basic timeline does emerge in the Gospel of John. First, the Lord would ascend to the Father (John 14:28), and the disciples would be left behind (John 14:12, 16:16-19). Afterwards, the Holy Spirit would come to the disciples (John 14:16-17), He would convict the world (John 16:7-8), and He would guide the disciples and give them revelation (John 16:12-15). The disciples would also need to pray (John 14:13-16) and would also experience tribulation in the world (John 16:20-22, 33). Eventually, the disciples would die (John 21:17-24). After all these things, the Lord would return for the disciples—and we believe He will also return for us.

Checking Out The Main Passages in The Epistles

There are two passages that in the epistles that clearly speak of the rapture. We will now turn our attention to them.

1 Thessalonians

In his first epistle to the Thessalonians, Paul tells the believers that the Lord (Jesus Christ) will descend from heaven with a shout, the voice of an archangel, and the trumpet of God, and the dead Christians will resurrect first, then we (those Christians who are alive) will be caught up together with the resurrected Christians in the clouds, meet the Lord in the air, and be forever with the Lord (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17). This is the clearest biblical reference to the rapture—the language is straightforward—we are going up, baby! All believers, dead and alive, will ascend just as the Lord Jesus Christ Himself ascended (Acts 1:9).

There is nothing symbolic about this—in light of the Lord’s literal ascension (and Enoch’s, and Elijah’s), this is a literal event.

Now, the reason Paul told all this to the Thessalonians is that they were mourning for those Christians who had died (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14). Therefore, Paul reminds them about the resurrection, and he adds the detail that the ones alive will not precede meeting with the Lord. Maybe he was saying something like this, You’re mourning for them because they died, but they’re actually going to see the Lord at the same time those who are alive will see the Lord. Paul was trying to comfort them (1 Thessalonians 4:18).

Notice, however, that Paul does appear to give us an important hint about the time when this will occur. This ascension of the church (what we call the rapture) will take place immediately after the Lord descends from heaven, calls out, and the dead Christians resurrect.

Some scholars believe the Lord’s descent from heaven refers to his second coming to Earth, but other scholars point out that the Lord appears to come only to the clouds and the air to meet the church. Notice that nothing is said about Him coming to war against the nations or judge them in any way.

Another detail is that the rapture takes place at the same time as the resurrection of the Christian believers. This is an important detail, but it can be a little problematic—because we may not know when the resurrection of the church will occur.

In John 5:24-29, the Lord tells us that there will be a time when all that are in the graves will hear His voice and resurrect, some unto life and some unto damnation. The Lord’s view here is very consistent with Daniel’s prophecy (Daniel 12:2). However, the book of Revelation gives us an important detail: the ones resurrected unto life are resurrected before the millennium, and the ones resurrected unto damnation are resurrected after the millennium (Revelation 20:4-5, 12-15).

Does this mean that Revelation contradicts the words of the Lord and Daniel? Certainly not. God progressively revealed his plan unto the authors of the Bible. He first declared there would be a resurrection for everyone, but then He declared that two different groups would be resurrected at different times.

Could the first resurrection be the same resurrection of the church? Maybe yes, and most likely not. Some scholars believe that this first resurrection is only the resurrection of Israel prior to the millennium (Ezekiel 37). Notice also that, although the Lord has certainly come to Earth when this first resurrection in Revelation takes place, there is no mention of Christians being caught up to meet the Lord in the air. No one goes to heaven during the first resurrection, and that was the main point about what the Lord promised to his disciples in John 14:2-3.

We need to take in consideration that the Lord was speaking to different groups in John 5:25 and in John 14:2-3. In John 5:25, the Lord was talking to Jewish religious leaders who opposed him—it makes sense he would talk about a resurrection that concerns Israel. In John 14:2-3, the Lord was talking to his disciples: it is very probable he was making a special promise to them. It appears that the Lord was giving two different messages to two different groups.

Thus, we don’t really know when the resurrection of the church will take place.

Roman Custom and 1 Thessalonians 4:17

Some scholars, like R. C. Sproul, have pointed out that this passage is reminiscent of a Roman custom. According to the custom, when a Roman army would return to its city, the people of the city would come out to welcome the army, and then they would accompany the army back in the city. In the opinion of said scholars, 1 Thessalonians 4:17 is saying that when the Lord returns to Earth, he will first be received by the church in the air, and then He will be accompanied by the church back to Earth.

The view above is really a beautiful and insightful comment on 1 Thessalonians 4:17. However, although we should keep it in mind, we should be careful not to restrict the passage because of it. In the context of 1 Thessalonians 4:17, Paul does not mention anything about the church returning to Earth with the Lord. While similitudes between the custom and the passage exist, differences also exist and should be taken in consideration. Moreover, the Lord promised He would take the disciples back to His Father’s home, where there are many mansions. Thus, the interpretation is not conclusive because (1) it appears to contradict the Lord’s promise and because (2) the context in 1 Thessalonians 4 lacks details that support this view.

Other Details in 1 Thessalonians 4:17

Some interesting details in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 are the mention of the shout, the voice of the archangel, and the trump of God. It appears that when the Lord returns He will be very loud instead of being stealthy, like a thief in the night (Mathew 24:43, Luke 12:39, 1 Thessalonians 5:2, 2 Peter 3:10).

Let’s examine those passages that speak of the Lord’s coming as a thief in the night:

In Matthew 24:2-3, the Lord warned his disciples about the destruction of the temple. The disciples associated the destruction of the temple with the coming of the Lord, and therefore enquired how they would be able to tell the Lord’s return (this question alone demonstrates that the disciples should not expect the Lord to return to Earth immediately after his ascension).

The Lord responded, and gave them a basic outline of the signs of his coming and his coming.

  1. False Christs would come (Mt. 24:5)
  2. There would be rumors of wars (24:6)
  3. There would be wars, famines, pestilences, and earthquakes (24:7)
  4. The Lord’s disciples would be persecuted (24:9)
  5. False prophets will arise (24:11)
  6. The gospel will be preached to all the world (24:14)
  7. The abomination of desolation prophesied by Daniel would appear (24:15)
  8. False Christs and false prophets will show great signs and wonders (24:24)
  9. A cataclysm would take place (24:29)
  10. The sign of the Son of Man’s coming will appear in heaven (24:30)
  11. The Son of Man will come (24:30)

These then is an outline of the main events. The rest of the Lord’s words are descriptions of the main events.

Notice, that nothing is mentioned about a rapture. In fact, the Lord’s words imply that the disciples, who form part of his church, will see the abomination of desolation and go through all the troubles of the great tribulation.

Moreover, the Lord’s description of the coming of the Son of Man should call our attention. The Son of Man (the Lord Jesus) will come with the clouds, with power, and with glory (24:30). He then will send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet to gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other (24:31).

The Lord’s words appear to be related to what Paul discussed in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, that the Lord will descend from heaven with a shout, the voice of an archangel, and the trumpet of God, and the dead Christians will resurrect first, then we (those Christians who are alive) will be caught up together with the resurrected Christians in the clouds, meet the Lord in the air, and be forever with the Lord (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17).

Notice the similarities!

  • The Son of Man comes with the clouds; Christians are caught up in the clouds.
  • The Lord sends his angels with a great sound of trumpet; the Lord descends with the voice of an archangel and the trumpet of God (an archangel is usually a spirit who rules over the other angels, so the voice of an archangel may imply that the Lord is commanding his angels)
  • The elect are gathered from the four winds (not the corners of the Earth), from one end of heaven to the other (not one end of Earth to the other); the Christians meet the Lord in the air.

The similarities between Matthew 24 and 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 gives great credibility to the view that the Christians, after meeting the Lord in the air, immediately return to Earth with the Lord – however, they still do not go up to heaven.

Matthew 24:43

In regards to Matthew 24:43, how this passage fits with the entire context of Matthew 24 is somewhat puzzling. Having explained the signs of his coming, the Lord explains that his coming will also be a surprise (Matthew 24:36-51). On the one hand, his disciples will be able to tell that the Lord is coming soon, on the other hand the Lord’s coming will be a surprise to everyone.

To interpret this matter of the Lord coming as a thief, we have to look at the previous verses (Matthew 24:37-42). The Lord says that his coming will be as Noah’s flood. People were eating, drinking, and marrying until the day when Noah went into the ark. The people didn’t know that Noah went into the ark, and suddenly they were taken by the flood (washed them away). 37-39

Then the Lord discusses that two people will be together, and that one will be taken and the other left (Mt. 24:40-41). Usually, we quickly assume that the one who is being taken away is being raptured. However, we should also consider the perspective that the ones being taken away are being taken away in the same way the flood took away those who were not in the ark. In other words, the Lord may be saying that those being taken away are being killed, and those that are left will enter into the millennial kingdom. This view could be reinforced when we consider the parallel passage (Luke 17:26-37) in which the disciples ask where, and the Lord responds that the eagles will gather wherever the dead body is. If the disciples meant where are those being taken, then it appears that the Lord is saying that those being taken away are being destroyed—this is the view I was taught.

However, there is a problem with this view, that those being taken are being destroyed. In Matthew, the Lord said that the angels would gather his elect. Thus, if the angels gather the elect, and then those who are being taken are destroyed, who is left on Earth? On the other hand, if the disciples were not asking where people were taken, but where were people left, the we have more harmony.

Those being left are being left as dead bodies, and the birds will be eating their flesh (Revelation 19:17-18). Those being taken are the elect, they will be escaping the destruction, just like Noah when he went into the ark, and like Lot when he went out of the city (Luke 17:26-30).

1 Thessalonians 5:2 and 2 Peter 3:10

In 1 Thessalonians, the Apostle Paul provides us some clarity regarding the Lord’s coming being as a thief in the night: he tells us that day should not surprise us (1 Thessalonians 5:1-4).

Thus, the coming of the Lord will be like a thief in the night for those who do not believe, for they will not be expecting the Lord to return. May they will be caught up in following the false Christs and false prophets that will show signs, or maybe they will feel safe and secure because of political events, so they will not expect the Lord to suddenly come from heaven to destroy them all.

Likewise, Peter agrees that the day the Lord will be as surprising as a thief, but he instructs believers to look forward to it (1 Peter 3:12).

Thus, the Lord will come as a thief in the night upon those who do not believe—they will not be expecting him, but He will appear suddenly. We, however, will not be surprised—we will be looking forward to His coming.

1 Corinthians 15

Verses 23 to 25

Another Scripture we should consider when discussing the rapture is 1 Corinthians 15. In this chapter, Paul corrects the Corinthian believers who thought there was no such thing as the resurrection of the dead. Paul bases his argument on the fact that Jesus Christ himself rose from the dead.

After teaching that the resurrection of the dead is a doctrine believers should take seriously, Paul discloses, in verses 23 and 24, the order in which some events will take place:

  • First, the resurrection of Christ, which had already taken place when Paul wrote the epistle.
  • Second, the resurrection of Christians at the coming of the Lord.
  • Third, the end, when Christ delivers the kingdom to the Father after putting down all enemies.

By the way, notice that (according to verse 25) between the resurrection of believers and the time when Christ delivers the kingdom to the Father, Christ reigns (presumably, on Earth) until he has conquered all enemies--this presents strong support for a literal millennial kingdom.

Notice that, from a biblical perspective, the resurrection of all believers takes place at the coming of the Lord--and we know (from Paul's first epistle to the Thessalonians) that the rapture takes place at the resurrection of all believers in Christ.

Notice also, that the tribulation is conspicuously absent from Paul's table. Paul doesn't say that there will be a tribulation between the resurrection and the end; he just says that, after the resurrection of believers at the coming of the Lord, the Lord will deliver the kingdom to God the Father. The only thing he mentions that will take place in between these two events is the time of Christ's reign on Earth.

Of course, this doesn't eliminate the possibility that Paul just didn't see a need to mention the tribulation, but neither does it confirm that Paul believed the tribulation will take place between the coming of the Lord and the Lord's reign on Earth.

Verses 49 to 54

In 1 Corinthians 15:49-54, Paul gives us more relevant details about the resurrection of those who believe in Jesus Christ..

First, he tells us that, when we resurrect, we will bear the image of Christ, not the image of Adam (v.49). According to verses 44 to 50, our bodies then will not be natural, earthy, and corruptible; instead, they will be spiritual, heavenly, and incorruptible. Clearly, we will bear the image of the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ.

Second, Paul tells us that not all believers will asleep. Often in the gospels, the Lord referred to those whom he was about to raise from the dead as being asleep (Matthew 9:24, Mark 5:39, Luke 8:52, John 11:11, 13); and, in the rest of the New Testament, believers in Christ are often said to be asleep instead of being dead (Acts 13:36, 1 Corinthians 11:30, 1 Thessalonians 4:14, 1 Thessalonians 5:10). Thus, what Paul means is that no al believers will die, but that all will be resurrected--and, when the dead Christians are resurrected, all--the resurrected ones and the ones who were already alive--will be transformed (meaning, all will receive spiritual, heavenly, and incorruptible bodies).

According to Paul, the resurrection and the transformation will take place in the blink of an eye. Obviously, these events will be too fast for humanity to perceive as they happen. It appears that, as Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins depicted in the first book of their most famous series (I guess I should read the series sometime, I heard it's really good), people will only notice that anything happened because the Christians will be gone and only their clothes will be left behind.

The third juicy detail we should note is that the resurrection of all dead believers and the transformation of all believers (the ones that were alive and the ones that were resurrected) will immediately follow the sound of a trumpet.

What trumpet? It is the Lord's trumpet, the trumpet of God (1 Thessalonians 4:16)--Paul is clearly talking about the same trumpet he mentioned in 1 Thessalonians 4:16.

2 Thessalonians 2

What the Text Says

There is another important passage about the end times that those who believe in a rapture before the tribulation often consider. This passage is 2 Thessalonians 2:1-14.

In the preceding verses, Paul stated that the Lord Jesus Christ will be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, and that he will take vengeance on all of them who do not know god and who do not obey the gospel (2 Thessalonians 1:7-8).

In verse 1 of chapter 2, Paul beseeches the Thessalonians by "by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto him" (2 Thessalonians 2:1, KJV). We can assume that the Thessalonians were familiar with these two concepts through Paul's teaching when he was with them (2 Thessalonians 2:5).

Paul tells the Thessalonians not to worry that the day of Christ had come because the day of Christ is still a future event. It hasn't happened yet, nor was it taking place right then (2 Thessalonians 2:2).

Paul tells the believers that the day of Christ will not come unless there is first a falling away the and the man of sin (also called the son of perdition) be revealed first (2 Thessalonians 2:3). According to Paul, this ruler will sit in the temple of God and claim to be God (2 Thessalonians 2:4)--it seems to me this implies that a third temple will be standing.

Some pastors teach that the "falling away" is the apostasy of the church. The rationale is that you have to fall from somewhere. However, this view cannot be defended from the context: it is only based on the words "falling away." In the immediate context, the only falling away we see is the fall of the world, which is deceived by this man of sin and follows him (2 Thessalonians 2:9-12).

Paul then remarks to the Thessalonians that they know what is withholding this man of sin from being revealed (2 Thessalonians 2:6). Because they know what he means, since he explained it to them when he was with them (2 Thessalonians 2:5), Paul does not bother to explain it in the epistle (at least, not explicitly--I'll be looking for clues in the context, and maybe I'll find some by the time I am done writing this... just so you know, I still don't know where the evidence will lead me...).

However, Paul remarks that the mystery of iniquity (most likely, not the man of sin himself, but forces that will reveal the man of sin) is already at work (it was already at work in their own times, some two-thousand years ago!), but the the one who is restraining the mystery of iniquity will continue to do so until he is out of the way, and then will the man of sin be revealed (2 Thessalonians 2:7-8).

Making Sense of WHAT, THE ONE, and HE in 2 Thessalonians 2

Those who hold to the pre-tribulation rapture of the church argue that what, the one, and he refer to the Holy Spirit. Because, in the original language of the text, the word spirit can be both an it and a he, they believe these three (what, the one, and he) refer to the Spirit of God, who is restraining the mystery of iniquity from revealing the man of sin. Then, when the church is raptured, the Spirit of God (who dwells in every believer) will be removed from Earth together with the church, and then the man of sin will be revealed.

I find this interpretation of the text difficult to accept. First, this interpretation of the text forces together two concepts that are not related to each other in the text. Even if the Holy Spirit is in view in 2 Thessalonians 2:6-7, the church and its rapture are not in view. Moreover, in 1 Corinthians 15:51-52 and 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17, where the church, the resurrection, and the rapture are in view, the Holy Spirit is not in view. There really is no passage in the Bible that puts the Holy Spirit and the rapture together.

A second reason I find this interpretation difficult to accept is that although the word Spirit can be both he and it, the passage does not demand that what and he have the same antecedent. What and he are obviously related by the act of restraining, but what could be referring to God's power or God's plan, whereas he could still be referring to the Holy Spirit or God the Father. Wouldn't it be more natural to first assume that the antecedents are not the same?

Third, the Spirit is omnipresent (Psalm 139:7-10)--how then can he be removed from Earth? Moreover, since (according to proponents of the pre-tribulation rapture) people will still repent and believe in Christ during the tribulation, doesn't this mean that the Holy Spirit will still be present and active on Earth during the tribulation?

As I try to interpret this obscure passage, the first detail that calls my attention in the passage is that the man of sin is ultimately sent by God to deceive those who did not believe the truth (2 Thessalonians 2:11-12). Even though the mystery of iniquity is at work, it cannot accomplish anything that is not God's will. God is in control. Logically, the one who is ultimately restraining the mystery of iniquity is God.

The next detail that calls my attention is that the man of sin sits in the temple of God to oppose God and to claim that he is God (2 Thessalonians 2:4). This is the crux of the conflict in the events that Paul describes in 2 Thessalonians 2. From there on, the participants in the conflict are Satan, who empowers the man of sin (2 Thessalonians 2:9), and the Lord Jesus Christ, who fights and destroys the man of sin (2 Thessalonians 2:8).

Notice that, immediately after identifying the crux of the conflict in verse 4, Paul adds that he explained these things to the Thessalonians when he was with them (2 Thessalonians 2:5). Paul told them that the man of sin would sit in the temple and claim to be God. This is important.

It appears that Paul had been teaching eschatology to the Thessalonians, and I cannot imagine Paul teaching eschatology to them without bringing up the prophecies of the Hebrew Bible, (the Old Testament, or Tanach). In fact, as we read through many of Paul’s epistles (Galatians, 1 Corinthians, and Romans) we see that he often discussed the Law and the Prophets (the Old Testament) in his writings.

So then, is there any place in the Tanach where we can find a similar description of the man of sin (whom Christians generally refer to as the Antichrist)? It seems to me that, in 2 Thessalonians 2:4, Paul combines elements from both Daniel 11:36 and 12:11. In Daniel 11:36, the king (whom many interpreters identify as the Antichrist) exalts himself and magnifies himself above every god, and he speaks against the God of gods. In Daniel 12:11, we find an abomination of desolation in God’s temple (compare with Daniel 11:31).

Could these passages in Danie bring clarity to who and what is restraining the mystery of iniquity in 2 Thessalonians 2? I think so. In Daniel 11, immediately before we read about the Antichrist in verse 36, we are told that "the people that do know their God shall be strong, and do exploits" (Daniel 11:32, KJV), and that those who understand will instruct many, fall, and be tried (Daniel 11:33-35). Although these verses point us in the direction of the Maccabean revolt, they may also be telling us about the role the nation of Israel plays in resisting the Antichrist, the man of sin.

Throughout the ages, there has been a mystery of wickedness opposing God and attempting to destroy his chose people, the nation of Israel: Egypt, Assyria, Media, Persia, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Nazis, etc.. All these nations tried to conquer and destroy Israel, and they opposed the God of Israel. Not surprisingly, the Antichrist will follow their attempts, and he will try to sit in God's temple and declare that he is God.

Thus, it is Possible that what restrained the mystery of wickedness was the resistance by nation of Israel, and that who restrained the mystery of wickedness was the nation of Israel. Given the many eschatological prophecies that mention the nation of Israel, this scenario is more likely than the scenario in which Paul is talking about the rapture of the church and the Holy Spirit's departure from Earth, for which we find no support elsewhere in the Bible.

Now that the nation of Israel is back in its land as an independent nation since 1948, we can expect them to eventually build a third temple, and the mystery of iniquity to begin, once again, its long war against the nation of Israel and their God. Eventually, this man of sin will be able to overcome Israel and take the temple--but not for long, for the Lord Jesus Christ will destroy him.

Consequently, what Paul seems to be saying to the Thessalonians is "Don't worry, God has a timetable, and the coming of the Lord hasn't started just yet."

Moreover, notice that according to Paul's words, "the coming of our Lord" and "our gathering together unto him" occur in "the day of Christ" (2 Thessalonians 2:1-3, KJV). Both events, the Lord's coming and the rapture by which we are gathered together unto the Lord appear to be simultaneous events that occur on the same day.

Revelation 3:10

In Revelation 3:10, the Lord Jesus says the following to the church of Philadelphia:

"Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth." (Revelation 3:10, KJV)

The church of Philadelphia is one of the seven churches that, in the book of Revelation, represent all churches in the world and all of history. What the Lord tells unto any of the seven churches is something that is meant for all churches to consider, although it isn't necessarily fulfilled in all the churches.

For example, the Lord tells the church of Sardis that it is dead (Revelation 3:1). Does this mean that every church is dead? Of course not! Instead, it means that the church of Sardis was actually spiritually dead, and that the rest of the churches should be careful not to follow in its footsteps.

Now, the hour of temptation that will try the whole world is a reference to the terrifying and yet future events prophesied in the book of Revelation. The Lord tells the church of Philadelphia that, since they have kept his word, he will keep them from that hour of temptation. Does this mean that he will keep all churches from the hour of temptation? Not necessarily.

Moreover, the Lord does not say how he will keep them. He may keep them through different means other than the rapture. For example, in Revelation 7:2-3, an angel seals the 144,000 to preserve the from the plagues that are about to come on the Earth. Moreover, in John 17:15, the Lord prays that the Father would keep his disciples from the evil one, not that they would be taken from the word. This is significant because we believe that the author of Revelation is the same author of John, so maybe both verses are related. It is, therefore, not altogether certain that the way in which the Lord will keep the church of Philadelphia is a reference to the rapture.

Putting It All Together

We have covered a lot of ground, and before writing this section, I took a bit of time to look once again at the information I have presented.

From all the Scripture passages we have seen, these are the things we can say with certainty:

  • The rapture is simultaneous with the resurrection of all Christian believers.
  • The rapture and resurrection of all Christian believers happen when the Lord returns.
  • The Bible only mentions two resurrections (Revelation 20:4-5):
    • one at the beginning of the millennium, when the Lord returns
    • the other after the millennium at the white throne judgment
  • Consequently, the rapture is most likely a post-tribulation event that occurs before the millennium.
  • If this is so, it is likely that the believers ascend to the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and then they return with the Lord to Earth to reign with Christ for a thousand years.

This is really the more conservative approach to interpret the Bible. The pre-tribulational view of the rapture relies on interpreting obscure passages (such as 2 Thessalonians 2:6-7 and Revelation 3:10) and on points to which objections can be easily raised:

  • That, since Israel and the church are not the same, their resurrections cannot take place at the same time. Why not? In fact, the church seems to enjoy the good things does for Israel (Acts 15:16-17, Romans 11:11-12).
  • That the coming of the Lord to rapture the church is a different coming rom the coming of the Lord to reign and resurrect Israel. Why? Both are described with language that is very compatible—they both include clouds and angels.
  • That the tribulation is a period of trial for Israel and those who dwell on Earth, having rejected the gospel of the Lord. Yes, but the Lord can cause preserve his church through all these situations as he preserved Israel when he sent plagues over Israel.

In 1 Corinthians 15:51-52, Paul shows the Corinthians a mystery. The mystery is not the rapture, for Paul does not disclose the rapture to them. The mystery is that not all Christians will sleep (die), and that all Christians will be changed. Paul then writes that this will occur in the blink of an eye, at the sound of a trumpet.

In 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17, Paul writes about the same event: the dead Christian are resurrected after the sound of a trumpet, and the Christians who are alive are also affected by this event. However, this passage adds some more details that are relevant:

  • This event will occur at the coming of the Lord.
  • The Lord will shout.
  • The Lord will use the voice of an archangel (someone who commands other angels).
  • The believers will be caught up in the clouds.
  • The believers will meet the Lord in the air.

In 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3, we learn that the coming of the Lord and our gathering together with him are events that will occur in the day of Christ, which only takes place after there has been a falling a way and the man of sin has been revealed.

In Matthew 24:30-31, the Son of Man (Jesus) comes in the clouds after the tribulation, and he uses a great trumpet to send his angels to gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.

Matthew 24:30-31 appears to have much in common with 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 in that both passages include clouds, a trumpet, angels, and the gathering of those who belong to Christ.

Moreover, notice that Matthew 24:3, 1 Thessalonians 4:15, and 2 Thessalonians 2:1 state these events will take place at the coming of the Lord.

Taking all these point in consideration, it seems more reasonable to me that there is only one coming of Christ, not two (pre-tribulation rapture proponents believe the Lord comes to the atmosphere of the Earth before the tribulation and to Earth itself after the tribulation); and that there are only two resurrections (one at the beginning of the millennium and one after the millennium), not three (pre-tribulation rapture proponents believe that the rapture and the resurrection of Christians happen seven years before the first resurrection of two in the book of Revelation).

Consequently, it is my current opinion, after looking at these various passages of the Bible, that what we call the rapture is a post-tribulation rapture. It is the same first resurrection that takes place at the beginning of the millennial kingdom in the book of Revelation. However, at the time of Paul’s writing, the believers in Corinth and Thessalonian would not have known about this resurrection from the book of Revelation because most likely the book of Revelation had not yet been written. They would have only had the gospels and the books of Daniel and Ezekiel to learn about the resurrection, and therefore Paul had to clarify to them that the Christian believers would also be resurrected at this time.

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What do you think?

© 2020 Marcelo Carcach

Comments

Cheryl E Preston from Roanoke on October 02, 2020:

I don't know what to believe about the rapture. I do know He will come again