heavenOne of the distinctive features of popular American Christian eschatology is belief in a pretribulational rapture, “a Second Coming [of Christ]… known only to believers and resulting in their deliverance from earth,”[1] which will precede the “great tribulation” mentioned in the book of Matthew[2].  A number of works about the rapture, including Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth[3] and the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye[4], have enjoyed considerable success in American markets.  Yet we would be mistaken to conclude from the success of such works that American Christians have reached a consensus regarding the rapture.  On the contrary, the doctrine of a pretribulational rapture is among today’s most contentious theological issues.

The conflict arises from that fact that the proponents of rapture theology generally argue from within the larger framework of dispensationalism, a multifaceted system of beliefs characterized by its emphasis on literal interpretation of biblical prophecy and its unique view of Church history[5].  Many dispensationalists consider their beliefs about the rapture a natural consequence of their beliefs about the Church, whereas critics (notably Carl E. Olson, author of Will Catholics be “Left Behind”?[6], an extensive critique of rapture theology from the Catholic perspective) maintain that scripture does not provide sufficient evidence for their claims. In the following discussion, I hope to substantiate several difficulties I see in what I take to be the common dispensationalist ecclesiology.  These difficulties lead me to regard dispensationalist rapture theology with skepticism.  There are undoubtedly believers in the pretribulational rapture that do not consider themselves dispensationalists, and these will be able to produce arguments for their views that are independent of the aforementioned ecclesiological debate.  The concerns I raise here will likely not affect them.  In fact, it is not my aim to convince the reader to adopt any particular position – the details of the Second Coming are of subordinate consequence with respect to the essence of our religion, which is to follow Christ.  But we are called to love truth[7], and therefore it will not be out of order to carefully examine the dispensationalist’s picture of the Church, Israel, and the end times in light of Scripture.

The Dispensationalist’s Thought Process

Traditional dispensationalists make a clear distinction between Israel and the Church and between God’s plan for Israel and God’s plan for the Church.  When the Bible mentions Israel, they maintain, it is referring to the literal nation of Israel, the Jewish people and the land they inhabit.  In the memorable words of one dispensationalist exegete, “Israel is Israel – period!”[8] According to this view, God’s plan for Israel as revealed in the covenants of the Old Testament and in John’s vision of the New Jerusalem in the book of Revelation is a plan for Israel in the strict sense.  The covenants were made with the Jews and for the Jews.  They will reach their fulfillment when the New Jerusalem is established and Jesus takes on the role of a Davidic king.

The Church, on the other hand, has little place in God’s overarching plan.  Dispensationalist theologians have referred to it as “an interruption of God’s program for Israel”[9] and “an intercalation”[10].   The Church was established because the Jewish people rejected Jesus when he offered himself to them as the Davidic king foretold by prophecy[11].  Thus, the Church bears no relation to God’s plan for his people except insofar as it is God’s response to Israel’s temporary rejection of that plan.

Perhaps because of the nature of their interpretation of God’s plan for Israel, dispensationalists make a further distinction.  Israel, they claim, is earthly in nature, while the Church is spiritual in nature.  Consequently, God’s plan for Israel is an earthly plan – to establish His new earthly kingdom in Jerusalem.  Likewise, we might expect that God’s plan for the Church will be a spiritual plan.  It seems natural to identify the fulfillment of this spiritual plan with the scriptural imagery of believers being “caught up”[12] to dwell with Jesus.  John Nelson Darby, an early and widely influential dispensationalist theologian, makes the connection between ecclesiology and eschatology clear: “It is this conviction, that the Church is properly heavenly in its calling and relationship with Christ, forming no part of the course of events of the earth, which makes its rapture so simple and clear”[13].  Dispensationalists generally go on to argue that since the great tribulation and the other events of the end times are the beginning of the fulfillment of God’s plan for Israel, we should expect the age of the Church to come to an end before they occur.  This is the doctrine of the pretribulational rapture.

The dispensationalist argument for the pretribulational rapture is complicated, and it will be helpful before proceeding to summarize it as follows:

1. The Church is a purely spiritual entity.

2. A purely spiritual entity has a spiritual beginning and a spiritual end.

3. The spiritual end of the Church is described in passages referring to believers being caught up       to dwell with Jesus.

4. The Church is interposed between Jesus’ earthly ministry and the fulfillment of God’s promises     to Israel.

5. The tribulation is the beginning of the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel.

6. Therefore, we should expect believers to be caught up to dwell with Jesus before the       tribulation.

Problems with the Teleological Distinction

Let the teleological distinction designate the system of propositions about the natures and purposes of Israel and the Church set forth in the previous section.  I will now substantiate two problems I see with the teleological distinction.  The first calls into question the dispensationalist’s dualism concerning the properties earthly and spiritual, which is the basis for his first premise above.  The second has to do with the dispensationalist’s claim that Jesus came to establish a Davidic kingdom in first-century Israel, which is the basis for his fourth premise above.

The First Problem – Dualism

The distinction between the earthly character of Israel and the spiritual character of the Church, which underlies the intuition that the two will have distinct fates during the last days, arises from a conceptual confusion.  It is undeniable that Israel is earthly and the Church is spiritual.  However, it does not follow from the fact that Israel is earthly that Israel is only earthly[14].  It is also the case that Israel is spiritual.  The properties of spirituality and earthliness are not mutually exclusive.  Humans, who were formed from the dust but animated by the breath of God, are both earthly and spiritual in nature; it is the same with Israel and the Church.  Paul explains that membership in the nation of Israel is not defined according to descent in his letter to the Romans:

“For not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, and not all of Abraham’s
children are his true descendants; but ‘It is through Isaac that
descendants shall be named after you.’  This means that it is not the
children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of
the promise are counted as descendants”[15].

A simple reading of Paul’s letter suggests that Israel is an earthly nation that participates in a spiritual reality, the reality of being born into God’s promise.    Again, it seems that part of what it is to be Israel is to have a certain spiritual property, namely the property of being the collection of the children of the promise.  Consequently we are not justified in the claim that Israel differs from the Church in that the latter is spiritual while the former is not.

Neither is the Church entirely spiritual.  An examination of the actions and qualities attributed to the Church in the book of Acts reveals that the Church is the sort of entity that can be afraid[16], be gathered together[17], make decisions[18], and send the apostles on their way[19].  These are not spiritual activities; rather, they are abilities arising from the fact that the Church is composed of individual believers.  But an entity composed of earthly beings cannot fail to be earthly.  It is important to note that I am not arguing that the Church is nothing over and above the Christians that belong to the Church.  I only claim that the Church has a firm foothold in this world.

If the Church and Israel both have spiritual and earthly qualities, we have lost our justification for the intuition that the Church will have a spiritual end different in character from Israel’s earthly end.  As a result, we have no reason to think that the scriptures about being “caught up” to meet Jesus describe the end of the Church – they could just as well be describing the end of Israel, or of both the Church and Israel, or of neither the Church nor Israel.  We know far less about the rapture than we thought we did.

The Second Problem – The Church as Interruption

The second problem stems from the claim that the Church is mostly irrelevant to God’s larger plan for Israel, having arisen only because Israel rejected Jesus when he came to be its Davidic king.  This interpretation of the mission of Jesus appears difficult to reconcile with certain New Testament scriptures.  I will treat these scriptures as explanada (things to be explained) and the teleological distinction as a theory proposed to explain them.  Presumably, supporters of the teleological distinction believe that their account is compatible with scripture.  They must therefore be able to give a plausible explanation for any and all scriptures that appear to undermine their position.  This will constitute a problem for them if plausible explanations for one or more scriptures are not forthcoming.

Explanadum 1: If God’s purpose for the Incarnation was to install a Davidic king in Israel, then we might expect that Jesus would have preached about his earthly kingdom.  Perhaps, for example, Jesus would at some point have expressed an interest in gaining political authority in Israel.  On the contrary, however, Jesus tells Pilate “My kingdom is not from this world.  If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.  But as it is, my kingdom is not from here”[20].  Not only does Jesus appear to deny that he desires to be an earthly King of the Jews, he also provides a plausible criterion by which we can empirically verify it for ourselves.  Surely if Jesus and his followers had been committed to establishing a new Davidic kingdom in ancient Judea, they would have resisted the arrest and execution of its king.  The proponent of the teleological distinction must provide a plausible explanation for Jesus’ surprising silence about his earthly mission.

Explanadum 2: It seems reasonable to suppose that the untimely death of God’s Davidic king would foil His purposes.  But multiple scriptures suggest that Jesus’ death and resurrection were integral parts of his mission on earth from the beginning.  Jesus foretells his death and resurrection numerous times in the course of his ministry[21].  Moreover, the Gospel of John records the fulfillment of prophecies from the Psalms and the books of Exodus and Numbers during the crucifixion of Jesus.[22] How could it be true that God’s plan for Jesus was for him to initiate a Davidic kingdom in first-century Israel and that his death on the cross was part of God’s plan as revealed by the prophets?

Explanadum 3: Near the end of his ministry, Jesus prays, “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do”[23]. The simplest interpretation of this passage is that the things Jesus had done up to that point were the work God had given him to do.  But if God’s plan for Jesus was for him to establish an earthly kingdom, then in what sense had Jesus accomplished the work God had given him to do?[24]

Explanadum 4: It is written in the book of Hebrews: “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins,”[25] and “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins,”[26] and “…we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all”[27].  We might conclude that a) a sacrifice was necessary for the forgiveness of our sins and b) an imperfect creation would not have been an adequate sacrifice.  The supporter of the teleological distinction believes that Jesus was not meant to be offered as a sacrifice and that his coming was supposed to initiate a heavenly kingdom in the Davidic tradition.  He must therefore either propose another way in which our sins could have been forgiven (that is, think of another perfect being that could have been sacrificed) or argue that it was not necessary for our sins to be forgiven.  This is by far the most pressing explanadum.  We are taught that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the central drama of God’s relationship with man, the most important event in all of history, and the perfect expression of God’s love and grace.  It is that through which we receive salvation and the right to be called children of God[28].  It is the foundation of the Church insofar as the Church is the spiritual fellowship of all those who have accepted Christ’s sacrifice, the living body of Christ in the world.  Yet if we accept the teleological distinction, it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that we are regarding the death and resurrection of Jesus as some sort of mistake, or plan B, or unfortunate misunderstanding.  I submit that if this is the case, then the teleological distinction cannot be reconciled with the Gospel message.  The defender of the teleological distinction must account for and explain away these intuitions if we are to take his claims seriously.

The intuition behind all four explanada is the same: if Jesus was meant to initiate a Davidic kingdom and the Church is merely an interruption in God’s plan for Israel, then why does the New Testament place such an emphasis on the death and resurrection of Jesus, on the New Covenant foretold by the prophets and established by his death and resurrection, on the central role of the Church in that New Covenant, and on the place of all of these in the context of God’s relationship with Israel?  The proponent of the teleological distinction must give a plausible explanation for all of these aspects of the New Testament.  Until he does, the teleological distinction is not a convincing theory of the relationship between Israel and the Church.

The Point

Let us now return to the argument for the pretribulational rapture presented at the beginning of this discussion.  It was:

1. The Church is a purely spiritual entity.

2. A purely spiritual entity has a spiritual beginning and a spiritual end.

3. The spiritual end of the Church is described in passages referring to believers being caught up       to dwell with Jesus.

4. The Church is interposed between Jesus’ earthly ministry and the fulfillment of God’s promises     to Israel.

5. The tribulation is the beginning of the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel.

6. Therefore, we should expect believers to be caught up to dwell with Jesus before the tribulation.

The first problem presented above calls into question the legitimacy of the identification of the Church as a purely spiritual entity (premise 1) and therefore the legitimacy of the assumption that scriptures referring to believers being “caught up” refer to the end of the Church (premise 3).  If we agree that there is a problem with these two premises, then the argument is not sound.  Likewise, the second problem presented above was meant to raise our suspicions about the claim that the Church is merely interposed into the history of Israel (premise 4).  If we think it is not, then once again the argument is not sound.   If the argument is not sound, then the dispensationalist has given us no reason to expect a pretribulational rapture.

It is important to realize that I am not denying that scripture predicts the ascension of believers (living and dead) to dwell with Jesus.  I am only resisting a localization of this particular event with respect to the other events foretold, especially because this localization appears to me to be justified by a problematic ecclesiology.  Scripture attests to the fact that the chronology of the Second Coming is obscure[29], and we would do well to be cautious of any claims about the end times that are not explicit in the Bible.  Though I disagree with most dispensationalists on the issue of the rapture, I consider it regrettable that disagreements concerning eschatology cause so much interdenominational strife.  Perhaps in our focus on the details of what is to come we have turned our attention in the wrong direction.  What does our eschatology contribute to our ability to follow Jesus perfectly in every moment – to bring God’s timeless love into time, for the sake of Israel and the world?

“Men’s curiosity searches past and future
And clings to that dimension. But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint-
No occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.[30]

[1] “The Rapture of the Church.” Position Paper of The General Council of the Assemblies of God.  Springfield, Missouri: Gospel Publishing House, 1979

[2] Matthew 24:21 “For then there will be a great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be.” (NKJV)

[3] Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 1970

[4] e.g. Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth’s Last Days. Wheaton, Ill: Tyndale House Publishers, 1995

[5]Dispensationalism‘ defies precise definition.  The name itself arises from the fact that dispensationalists divide Biblical history into distinct periods, or ‘dispensations’, which are meant to represent different phases in God’s relationship with His creation.  However, there is disagreement among dispensationalists concerning the number and nature of these dispensations, and many of the movement’s leading theologians (notably Charles Ryrie) consider the issue beside the point.  Instead, they argue, what defines dispensationalism is a specific set of views concerning the nature of the Church combined with a commitment to the literal interpretation of Biblical prophecy.  But problems arise with this definition as well, for it has been alleged that traditional dispensationalist interpretations of prophecy are not properly characterized as literal.  In many cases, critics argue, the dispensationalist interpretive method is inconsistent, treating only some passages literally.  So as not to become ensnared in the substantial confusion surrounding the nature of dispensationalism, I have limited my discussion to the particular view of Israel and the Church that has historically been embraced by most American dispensationalists.

[6] San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003

[7] Zechariah 8:19

[8] Van Impe, Jack. Everything about Prophecy. Troy, Michigan: Jack Van Impe Ministries, 1999.  Quoted by Olson, above.

[9] Pentecost, J. Dwight. Things to Come. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1958. Quoted by Olson, above.

[10] Ryrie, Charles.  The Basis of the Premillennial Faith. New York: Loizeaux Bros., 1953. Quoted by Olson, above.

[11] Ryrie writes, “Because the King was rejected, the messianic, Davidic kingdom was (from a human standpoint) postponed.”  Basic Theology. Wheaton, Ill.:  Victor Books, 1986.  Quoted by Olson, above.  Note that the claim is not that Jesus was rejected and then the Church was established, but rather that the Church was established because Jesus was rejected.  It follows from the dispensationalist view that if Jesus had not been rejected, the Church would not have been established.

[12] I Thessalonians 4:17 “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever.” (NRSV)

[13] Darby, John Nelson. Collected Works, 11:156.  Quoted by Olson, above.

[14] “P has quality q” does not imply “P has no qualities other than q.”

[15] Romans 9: 6-8 (NRSV)

[16] Acts 5:11

[17] Acts 14:27

[18] Acts 15:22

[19] Acts 15:3

[20] John 18:36 (NRSV)

[21] cf. Mt. 16:21, 17:22-23, 20:18-19; Mr. 8:31, 9:31, 10:33-34; Lu. 9:22, 9:44, etc.

[22] John 19:24, John 20:36-37

[23] John 17: 4

[24] The supporter of the teleological distinction could respond to my first three explanada by saying something like, “While Jesus initially intended to establish a Davidic kingdom in first-century Israel, after he was rejected the plan changed.”  But if he adopts this view, the supporter of the teleological distinction must point out the point where the plan changed.  Moreover (if my argument above has weight), that point must be before the first time Jesus predicts his death and resurrection.   The gospels do not seem to record any such dramatic repurposing.

[25] Hebrews 9:22 (NRSV)

[26] Hebrews 10:4 (NRSV)

[27] Hebrews 10:10 (NRSV)

[28] John 1:12

[29] Matthew 24:36

[30] Eliot, T.S. “The Dry Salvages” in Collected Poems 1909-1962.  New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1991

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