Examining the pretrib rapture: Israel and the church

Last week, we introduced the different views Christians hold regarding the rapture of the church. (If you aren’t familiar with these views, you might want to read this post first.) It may seem like we have a lot of work ahead of us to try to sift through all of these views. But if we ask the right questions first, we begin to see an important, clarifying distinction right away.

The pretrib, midtrib, and even pre-wrath views are all variations of the same basic viewpoint. While they may differ on the length of the tribulation, they all agree the rapture is an event that is distinct from the final return of Christ. Whether it’s seven years earlier, three-and-a-half years, or mere months or weeks, all of these views claim that Christ will first return for his church, and then later return with his church. Of course, those who hold the posttrib view would demur. This is the fundamental difference that separates the differing views of the rapture. So we’re going to spend the next few weeks answering this question:

Does the Bible teach that the rapture of the church and the final return of Christ are two separate events?

As we discussed last week, we find no pretrib view of the rapture in the first 18 centuries of the history of the church. Until 1830, nobody saw in Scripture the idea that the rapture will occur at a separate time before the return of Christ. This doesn’t mean we should simply dismiss the idea, but it does mean we should examine it very carefully before jettisoning the historical view of the church.

The primary question for us should always be: What does Scripture teach? And here we face a challenge to the pretrib view: There’s no passage of Scripture that describes the rapture as occurring at a different time than the return of Christ. We just don’t get this idea from a clear, unambiguous biblical reference. Instead, the case for the pretrib rapture is said to be built on other biblical truths that lead necessarily to the pretrib rapture of the church. Last week, we listed the three biblical truths that pretrib teachers claim point to a pretrib rapture. This week we’re going to examine the first of these claims:

Pretrib Claim 1
In history, God always works exclusively with either the people of Israel or the church. During the tribulation period God is once again focused on Israel, so it doesn’t make sense for the church to be here.

If you’ve attended pretrib Bible studies on the end times and the rapture, you’ve probably heard this idea emphasized as a sound principle for interpreting Scripture. Pretrib teachers see the church age as a kind of parenthesis or interruption in God’s working with his chosen people, Israel. When the church was established at Pentecost, God temporarily ceased working with Israel and devoted his attention to the church. But they believe that God will finish his work with the church at the rapture, and then once again focus his efforts on the people of Israel. Does Scripture bear this out?

The fulfillment of prophecy concerning Israel
We should first note that it’s not only pretrib believers who are anticipating God’s fulfillment of all the prophecies concerning Israel. We’ll look at some of these prophecies in greater detail in a future post, but most premil Christians—including pretrib and posttrib believers—expect God to keep all the promises he made specifically to the people of Israel. How he’ll do that and what that means for us today are questions for another study. But, even though they’re a little more cautious about speculating which current event matches which biblical prophecy, most posttrib pastors and teachers agree that God is not done with his chosen people, Israel.

Two peoples of God?
The early pretrib teachers believed that Israel and the church are completely separate and distinct—not only now, but for eternity. They believed we would eternally constitute two different peoples of God: Israel and the church.  This claim isn’t as common now, but we do still encounter it from time to time. What is the relationship between Israel and the church? Does God distinguish between his people, either in eternity or the current age? Let’s see what Jesus had to say to the Jewish people of his day:

I have other sheep, too, that are not in this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock with one shepherd.

John 10:16

Who are the “other sheep” Jesus was describing to his fellow Jews? These are the Gentiles who would someday place their faith in him. Together with the Jewish followers of Christ they would be one flock with one shepherd. Compare this to what Paul wrote:

For Christ himself has brought peace to us.  He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us. He did this by ending the system of law with its commandments and regulations. He made peace between Jews and Gentiles by creating in himself one new people from the two groups. Together as one body, Christ reconciled both groups to God by means of his death on the cross, and our hostility toward each other was put to death. He brought this Good News of peace to you Gentiles who were far away from him, and peace to the Jews who were near. Now all of us can come to the Father through the same Holy Spirit because of what Christ has done for us.

Ephesians 2:14-18

This reminds us of what Paul said in Romans 11:17:

But some of these branches from Abraham’s tree—some of the people of Israel—have been broken off. And you Gentiles, who were branches from a wild olive tree, have been grafted in.

He explained that God’s chosen people of Israel were like a cultivated olive tree, and the Gentile believers were like wild olive branches graciously, but unnaturally, grafted into the cultivated tree. We need to understand it was God’s will for the people of Israel to naturally progress from the Old Covenant into the New. God always intended for the church—the New Covenant people of God—to be the ultimate destination and home for his chosen nation, Israel. (Don’t forget that the original church was thoroughly Jewish.)

Yes, God is not finished with the ethnic people of Israel and, in the very end, he will fulfill his promises to them. But his plan for them is to bring them into New Covenant relationship with him, into the church, the body of Christ, so there will be one flock and one Shepherd. In one sense, the people of Israel are to come into the church; in another sense, we Gentiles have become part of the existing covenant people of God. This is why Ephesians 2:11-22 tells us:

Don’t forget that you Gentiles used to be outsiders. . . . In those days you were living apart from Christ. You were excluded from citizenship among the people of Israel, and you did not know the covenant promises God had made to them. You lived in this world without God and without hope. But now you have been united with Christ Jesus. Once you were far way from God, but now you have been brought near to him through the blood of Christ. . . .

So now you Gentiles are no longer strangers and foreigners. You are citizens along with all of God’s holy people. You are members of God’s family. . . . Through him you Gentiles are also being made part of this dwelling where God lives by his Spirit.

It’s wonderful that God will bring the remaining Jews into the New Covenant people of God, the church. (We’ll talk much more about this in a future study.) But it’s even more amazing he expanded his covenant people to include more than his chosen people of Israel, but to incorporate anyone who would believe in Christ. Yes, we should rejoice in the future hope for Israel; but, no, we should not seek to divide or separate Israel and the church into different peoples of God. He is making the two one. And what God has joined together, let no one separate.

A problem of timing
Another problem with this idea of God always working exclusively with either Israel or the church is it just doesn’t fit history. Most pretrib teachers would agree God dramatically established the New Covenant church at Pentecost. Most also agree that God judged unbelieving Israel through the destruction of Jerusalem. But Pentecost occurred sometime around 30 AD, and Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD. So some 40 years after the birth of the church age, God was still dealing with the people of Israel.

It gets worse. The events in the Middle East over the last 70 years certainly seem to reveal the powerful hand of God behind the scenes of history. I don’t know any pretrib pastor or teacher who would deny this. History has witnessed an ethnic people wander without a homeland for almost two millennia, maintain their distinct identity and culture, then return to and reclaim their ancient homeland, and even resurrect their ancient tongue as their everyday language. This is historically unprecedented! To see this as simply a natural occurrence and not involving strong divine providence strains credulity. Most pretrib teachers would not only agree, they share an excitement in watching developments unfold in the Middle East.

The problem for them is that this powerful, historical testimony to God working once again in the national affairs of Israel is happening before the rapture. These events are occurring during what is supposed to be the church age, when God only works with the church, not Israel. So this claim that God works exclusively with either Israel or the church simply doesn’t fit what God is actually doing in history.

Where is it written?
Of course, the biggest problem with this idea is we don’t see this principle expressed anyplace in Scripture. There’s no passage that explains to us how God only works with Israel or the church, not both during the same period of time. The next time you hear someone teach this, I suggest asking them, “Exactly where is this principle taught in Scripture?”

So this first supporting principle for the pretrib view hasn’t fared so well under closer examination. But more emphasis is usually placed today on the other two supporting claims. We’ll examine the second principle next week.

The return of Christ series:

The return of Christ: Keeping the main thing the main thing

Millennial match-up

More on the millennium

Rapture 101

Examining the pretrib rapture: Israel and the church [see above]

Examining the pretrib rapture: Removed or protected?

Examining the pretrib rapture: Is the rapture imminent?

Examining the pretrib rapture: Assorted claims

The posttrib rapture

Locusts and dragons and beasts, oh my! (Or the great tribulation)

“Pleased to meet you . . .” (Introducing the Antichrist)

The return of Christ: Odds and ends

More on the millennium

Last week we looked at the three main viewpoints Christians hold concerning the return of Christ. This week we’re going to spend a little more time comparing and evaluating these beliefs. To make our discussion a bit easier, I’m going to abbreviate the names of these views to: premil, postmil, and amil. (If you don’t know what we’re talking about, it might be helpful to read last week’s post: Millennial match-up.)

Converting the world?
So how do we begin sorting out these views? Well, probably the most distinctive belief is the postmil view that the world will become more and more Christianized until it’s all essentially part of the Kingdom of God. Both premils and amils disagree with this. Do we see anything like this in Scripture?

It’s interesting that in books and articles presenting different views on Christ’s return, postmils rarely attempt to make a vigorous case from Scripture for their viewpoint. Instead, they usually appeal to a general optimism found in the Bible regarding Christ’s ultimate victory and the redemption of all creation. A big problem for them is that there are many passages that aren’t so optimistic about spiritual conditions before the return of Jesus:

Then you will be arrested, persecuted, and killed. You will be hated all over the world because you are my followers. And many will turn away from me and betray and hate each other. And many false prophets will appear and will deceive many people. Sin will be rampant everywhere, and the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And the Good News about the Kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, so that all the nations will hear it; and then the end will come.

Matthew 24:9-14

You should know this, Timothy, that in the last days there will be very difficult times. For people will love only themselves and their money. They will be boastful and proud, scoffing at God, disobedient to their parents, and ungrateful. They will consider nothing sacred. They will be unloving and unforgiving; they will slander others and have no self-control. They will be cruel and hate what is good. They will betray their friends, be reckless, be puffed up with pride, and love pleasure rather than God. They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly.

2 Timothy 3:1-5

This doesn’t sound much like the Kingdom of God on earth! No wonder Jesus asked, “But when the Son of Man returns, how many will he find on the earth who have faith [Luke 18:8]?” Of course, just because most Christians reject this postmil viewpoint doesn’t mean we don’t seek to be salt and light in the world around us and to do everything we can to be a positive influence in our society. We want the world to be as affected by Christ, through his church, as possible. But we can’t expect to completely transform the world when Scripture hasn’t given us this charge. And we need to beware the real danger of seeking to establish the Kingdom through our own human efforts. This can all too easily lead to abuses of power and ungodly, coercive methods.

What kind of resurrections?
So what about the differences between the premil and amil views? The main distinction hinges on the interpretation of this Scripture:

They all came to life again, and they reigned with Christ for a thousand years. This is the first resurrection. (The rest of the dead did not come back to life until the thousand years had ended.) Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. For them the second death holds no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years.

Revelation 20:4-6

The natural way to read this is to see both resurrections as essentially the same thing, only one resurrection is before the thousand years and one is after. The passage seems to be describing physical resurrection from the dead. First those who are in Christ are resurrected at his return to be with him, and then those who have rejected Christ are resurrected to stand before God in judgment.

If we read the passage this way, it leads naturally to a premil understanding of the return of Christ. The first resurrection is of Christ’s followers who have died and occurs when he returns; the second resurrection (of those who did not follow Christ) is after the intervening millennial period. This interpretation presents a problem for those who hold to an amil view because it includes a thousand year period between the return of Christ and the final resurrection and judgment. This is what we call the millennium—which is precisely what amils do not believe in.

So how do amil believers interpret this passage? Generally, they understand the first resurrection to be a spiritual resurrection and the second one, after the thousand years, to be a physical resurrection. (Remember they see this thousand years as being symbolic of the current age between Christ’s first coming and his second coming, not a future period of time after Christ’s return.) They believe the first resurrection equals salvation, which is occurring now, and the second is the physical resurrection from the dead that will occur when Jesus returns.

The problem is this interpretation has to be read into the Scripture. There’s just nothing here to indicate that the second resurrection is a completely different kind than the first. The same wording is used for both, and they are specifically connected in the passage as first resurrection and subsequent resurrection. What in the text indicates any difference between these resurrections?

We’re told that some “came to life again” before the thousand years, and the “rest of the dead did not come back to life until the thousand years were ended.” It’s hard to see how we’re supposed to understand these dead as being dead in different ways and then coming back to life in different ways. Again, what in the text would indicate such a difference? Instead, by numbering them (“first resurrection”) the passage points to them being the same thing, only occurring at different times. Henry Alford famously protested this manufacturing of differences with no textual basis. If we can just decide that, in the same passage, the first resurrection (dead coming to life) means something different than the second resurrection (dead coming to life), then “there is an end of all significance in language, and Scripture is wiped out as a definite testimony to anything.”

(A related issue is the question of Satan. According to Revelation 20:1-3, Satan is bound and locked away during the thousand years. If the thousand years is a metaphor for the current period of time between Christ’s first coming and his second, can we really say Satan has been bound and imprisoned this whole time? If so, how can he be “prowl[ing] around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour [1 Peter 5:8]”?)

How does God keep his promises?
Another issue that sometimes divides premils and amils is how we view the fulfillment of certain Old Testament prophecies.  Amils see the promises God made to Israel as all being fulfilled in the church. Premils see some Old Testament prophecies fulfilled in the church but not all. They would distinguish between promises made to God’s people and promises made specifically to the ethnic people of Israel. Many of the prophecies regarding God’s people in general have indeed been fulfilled in the church. (I’ll write more on this in the future and give examples.) But there are many prophecies made specifically to the nation of Israel that still await fulfillment.

Premils anticipate that God will someday finish his work with the people of Israel and fulfill all of the Old Testament prophecies regarding them as an ethnic people. Some of these prophecies may be fulfilled in an expanded way, but not in such a way as to fail to fulfill the original prophecy. As Darrell Bock has said, God can give more than he promised, but he won’t give less. Amils tend to deny any special significance to the literal people of Israel in the context of Christ’s return, which is ironic considering everything that’s happened in the Middle East the past 65 years.

Why a millennium?
Sometimes critics of the premil view ask, “Why do we need a millennium?”  This period of time seems like an unnecessary pause between the return of Christ and the final judgment and eternal state. The implication seems to be that a millennium doesn’t really accomplish anything important. Is this true? Scripture doesn’t describe the purpose of the millennium, so answering this challenge requires us to do a little biblically-informed speculating.

According to the premil view, when Christ returns he will establish his Kingdom (or his rule) throughout the earth. He will enact universal justice and bestow peace and harmony to all. This will be a time of healing and renewal for human society (and for the earth itself). There will still be nations, and people will still work, marry and have children. But it will be life the way it could have been all along if we had only done things God’s way instead of ours. The millennium seems to be a beautiful time of demonstrating God’s wisdom to us, to the angels and whoever else is watching. Jesus will step in before we destroy ourselves and show us all the way it was supposed to be.

There’s an old MTV commercial warning viewers about the dangers of drugs. We see a hand holding an egg. “This is your brain,” the voiceover tells us. Then we see the egg being fried in a pan. “This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?” It was very simply done, and very effective. Toward the end of the millennium, Satan will be released and allowed to sway some people to revolt against the Kingdom of God (Revelation 20:7-10). This rebellion will be swiftly crushed. but it will provide one last lesson. “Here is my way for you to live. And here is life in opposition to me. Any questions?”

Whole books have been written on these different views of the millennium and Christ’s return. I’ve tried to cover the basics, and to explain why I hold a premillennial view. If you want to do more studying, I’d be happy to recommend books from all the respective viewpoints. Next week, we’ll begin discussing the rapture.

The return of Christ series:

The return of Christ: Keeping the main thing the main thing

Millennial match-up

More on the millennium [see above]

Rapture 101

Examining the pretrib rapture: Israel and the church

Examining the pretrib rapture: Removed or protected?

Examining the pretrib rapture: Is the rapture imminent?

Examining the pretrib rapture: Assorted claims

The posttrib rapture

Locusts and dragons and beasts, oh my! (Or the great tribulation)

“Pleased to meet you . . .” (Introducing the Antichrist)

The return of Christ: Odds and ends

Millennial match-up

Last week, I wrote that we’d be looking at the three main viewpoints Christians have historically held regarding the return of Christ. I’m sure many of you immediately thought: “pre-, mid- or post-.” (These are slang expressions for different views concerning the rapture. If you aren’t familiar with any of these terms, don’t worry; we’ll explain all of this in a couple of weeks.) But the rapture comes later in our study. There’s actually a bigger issue that has distinguished believers, and it has to do with the millennium.

“What’s a millennium?” you might ask. A millennium is simply a period of one thousand years. Remember Y2K and all the hysteria at the turn of the millennium, when we went from the 1900s to the 2000s? We went from one millennium into another. What does this have to with our Christian faith? Well, the Scriptures specifically refer to a thousand year period in Revelation 20:1-6:

Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven with the key to the bottomless pit and a heavy chain in his hand. He seized the dragon—that old serpent, who is the devil, Satan—and bound him in chains for a thousand years. The angel threw him into the bottomless pit, which he then shut and locked so Satan could not deceive the nations anymore until the thousand years were finished. Afterward he must be released for a little while.

Then I saw thrones, and the people sitting on them had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony about Jesus and for proclaiming the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his statue, nor accepted his mark on their forehead or their hands. They all came to life again, and they reigned with Christ for a thousand years.

This is the first resurrection. (The rest of the dead did not come back to life until the thousand years had ended.) Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. For them the second death holds no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him a thousand years.

There’s some very striking, strange imagery in this passage, and we’ll sort through much of it later. But what is the nature of this thousand year period? Christians have historically held to three different viewpoints regarding this millennial period and how it relates to the return of Christ:

Pre-millennial
In the first few hundred years in the history of the church, there were certain, shared beliefs about the return of Christ that were predominant among the early Christian believers. They believed that Jesus’ return will be dramatic and obvious to all. They believed that when he returns, he will usher all of us into a golden era of peace, harmony, health and prosperity. They believed that he will directly reign—on earth—over this kingdom, and that we (his followers) will somehow share in his reign. According to this view Christ returns before this golden age, or millennium, so it’s known as the premillennial view.

Revelation is apocalyptic literature and contains a great amount of symbolism [see Revelation: The story comes full circle], so there were differences of opinion as to whether this millennial period will be a literal thousand years or not. But everyone agreed that it will be a real and extensive period of time with Christ present and reigning on earth. At the end of this time, God will establish a new heaven and new earth, and humanity will enter eternity (Revelation 21-22). Christians who hold this view have generally interpreted certain passages from the Old Testament prophets as referring to this millennial period, such as Isaiah 2:2-4, 11:6-9, and 65:20-25.

Post-millennial
As you might guess, this is a belief that Christ will return after the millennium (hence the view is postmillennial). How did this view spread? Unfortunately, we have a tendency to go beyond the teachings of Scripture and add our own speculative ideas. The premillennial believers began to do this, at times suggesting some fairly strange ideas. The premillennial view also tended to emphasize the place of Israel in end times prophecy, and this was a problem for some. As the church became overwhelmingly Gentile, this Jewish emphasis was unappealing to many Christians. These factors likely encouraged some Christians to reject the predominant premillennial view.

Instead of the common understanding of the return of Christ, these believers stressed that the gospel is to be carried throughout the earth. They believed that, as Christians spread the gospel everywhere, the world will eventually be won for Christ (at least for the most part). They also believed that as society is influenced by the truth of Christ, its institutions will be transformed, and there will be real renewal of government, justice, education, commerce, etc. As culture becomes more and more Christian, humanity will gradually enter this golden, millennial age of general, universal well-being (which will not be a literal thousand years). When this period of peace and harmony reaches its zenith, Christ will return in triumph.

At first, this view seemed to be held by only a small number of believers, but as Christianity was legalized in the Roman empire and then became a real power, the postmillennial view seemed to correspond to what was happening in history. The postmillennial view was adopted by most, and premillennialism was pushed to the fringes of the church. In the 19th century, with the heady successes of science and industry, and the optimistic feeling that humanity could now solve all the problems that had seemed so intractable, postmillennialism was again a perfect match. Many proponents of liberal theology also embraced the postmillennial view.

But then the realism of the 20th century came crashing in: two horrific world wars, the threat of nuclear holocaust, oppressive dictatorships, genocide, famine, pollution, political corruption at the highest levels. The postmillennial view with its optimistic expectations of a continually improving world society all but died out. But the last few years, we’ve seen a resurgence of this view among certain groups of conservative (usually Reformed) Christians.

A-millennial
Those of you who love language may have already figured out the essence of this viewpoint. Let me show you what I mean. If something is moral, it’s good, right? If it’s immoral, that means it’s morally wrong. But if something is amoral, it means it doesn’t involve questions of right or wrong. When you decide whether to have chocolate or vanilla ice cream, this is an amoral choice; it doesn’t involve a question of what is morally right or wrong. This is the way we use the word amillennial. Those who hold to an amillennial view don’t believe in a literal millennial reign of Christ on the earth. They believe that, between Jesus’ first coming and his second coming, he reigns spiritually from heaven.

Beginning with early church teachers such as Origen, and later Augustine, many began to interpret biblical prophecies in a much less literal manner. They saw these prophecies as being fulfilled in a more spiritual, less concrete, way. (I’m using these descriptions in their popular sense, not as they’re used in academic theology.) For instance, they believed many of the Old Testament prophecies that seemed to be specifically intended for the people of Israel were actually fulfilled in the New Covenant people of God—the church. Because of this, they began to question the need for some “golden age” when God’s promises to the Jews would be literally fulfilled.

Many feel Augustine was the first to teach what would later be known as amillennialism. In much of church history, the amillennial viewpoint is often hard to distinguish from the postmillennial view. Neither believes that Christ will literally reign on earth for a thousand years. Both believe that when Christ returns he will immediately usher in the final age, universal resurrection and judgment, and our ultimate, eternal state. On the other hand, amillennial believers disagree with postmillennial Christians that the world will gradually become more and more Christianized.

After the disillusionment of the 20th century, many postmillennial believers adopted an amillennial perspective of the return of Christ. Today, most who are part of the Roman Catholic Church or the Eastern Orthodox Church are amillennial. Many who come from the older, mainline denominations (Lutheran, Reformed/Presbyterian, Anglican, Methodist, etc.) are also amillennial, with a few postmillennial Christians here and there. Those who come from a free church, Baptist, Pentecostal or nondenominational tradition tend to be premillennial in their understanding of end times (although not exclusively so). Many premillennial Christians are even unaware that there are Bible-believing Christians who understand the return of Christ and the millennium differently than they do! They often don’t realize that the question of the timing of the rapture (pre-, mid- or post-)—which can be so consuming for the premillennial—is one that doesn’t really concern postmillennial or amillennial Christians.

This is just one blog post, and so I’ve had to be brief and even a little simplistic in the way I’ve described these views. There is much more rich detail for each of them, and if you’re interested I’d encourage you to do more reading on your own. A great place to begin is Millard Erickson’s excellent book A Basic Guide to Eschatology: Making Sense of the Millennium (although I suggest skipping the first two chapters and beginning with chapter three). Hopefully, you haven’t been able to tell from this post which view I personally hold. This week, I want to just introduce these beliefs and where they came from. Next week, we’ll spend a little more time exploring the nature of the millennium and evaluating these three viewpoints.

The return of Christ series:

The return of Christ: Keeping the main thing the main thing

Millennial match-up [see above]

More on the millennium

Rapture 101

Examining the pretrib rapture: Israel and the church

Examining the pretrib rapture: Removed or protected?

Examining the pretrib rapture: Is the rapture imminent?

Examining the pretrib rapture: Assorted claims

The posttrib rapture

Locusts and dragons and beasts, oh my! (Or the great tribulation)

“Pleased to meet you . . .” (Introducing the Antichrist)

The return of Christ: Odds and ends