Recently during our church’s mid-week Bible Study, we’ve been discussing Eschatology (that is the doctrine of the end times). As is usual, there are varying opinions about the order of events surrounding the return of Jesus. Studying the future return of Jesus should encourage believers to have hope and courage to live faithfully for King Jesus in the present. It should press those who have never been born again to make a decision about Jesus. It should not, however, cause broken relationships and diminished regard among brothers and sisters in Jesus.
In order to recognize each other as fellow-believers, it is necessary to agree that Jesus is going to return, that we need to be ready for His return, and that He will judge everyone who has ever lived saving those who have surrendered to Jesus as Lord into eternal life with Him and condemning those who have rejected Jesus as Lord to eternal wrath. These are essential doctrines.
It is important for each believer to study about the return of Jesus and the events surrounding that return while developing an understanding based upon God’s Word. One problem is that as we do this, we fail to realize that many of these ideas are what we call tertiary doctrines.
Primary doctrines are those we must believe in order to consider one another orthodox Christians, contending for the faith once for all handed down to the saints (Jude 3). These doctrines include the virgin birth, the literal return of Jesus, a literal heaven and hell, the deity of Jesus, the Trinity, salvation by grace through faith, to name a few. If someone claims to follow Jesus but does not agree with primary doctrines, we cannot work with or fellowship with them.
Secondary doctrines are doctrines that we must agree on in order to worship and serve in a local church together. If someone does not agree on these doctrines, we can consider each other brothers and sisters and even work together on some efforts, but we would cause too much confusion trying to worship and serve together in the local church. These issues often surround ecclesiology, or the doctrine of the church. Some examples include: church polity, church offices, and spiritual gifts.
Tertiary doctrines are those doctrines that we can freely disagree while acknowledging each other as brothers and sisters, serving and worshiping together, and this disagreement causes very little dysfunction or confusion within the local church. The ordering of events surrounding the return of Christ often falls into this category.
What follows is a paper I wrote a little over four years ago while I was clarifying my views on eschatology. This paper was for my own benefit to solidify my understanding in my memory. Therefore, the writing lacks a conversational tone and appears somewhat raw and unedited but rather is more of a reference sheet. In it I discuss reasons to approach the events of Jesus’ return with humility within Southern Baptist Life, Reasons to see a unified people of God rather than two peoples of God, reasons to believe in a posttribulation return of Christ, arguments against believing in a pretribulation rapture, a defense of the doctrine of posttribulation return of Christ, and reasons to respect those who hold a pretribulation rapture.
My hope in sharing this paper is two-fold: that more evangelicals give posttribulationism a fair consideration and that those who disagree with each other will have humility and respect toward one another.
My Eschatological Views
By Eric Fannin, Summer of 2012
Reasons why Christians should approach this discussion with humility:
- Soteriology: Whether one believes in a Pretribulation rapture or a Posttribulation return of Christ does not affect his or her salvation.
- Ecclesiology: The way in which a body of believers practice being a faithful church is not affected by whether they are pretribulational, posttribulational, or mixed on this view.
- The Baptist Faith and Message (2000): allows room for Southern Baptists to disagree and still work together (see article X).
- Many faithful Southern Baptist Theologians stand on both sides of the debate.
- See Dr. Daniel Akin’s A Theology for the Church which is used in many classes throughout the six Southern Baptist Seminaries. In this text, the Posttribulationalism is argued for in the section entitled Last Things which was written by Russell D. Moore, the previous Senior Vice President for Academic Administration and Dean of the School of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the current President of the Southern Baptist’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
- Prophesy is one of the most difficult genres of writing in the Bible to interpret.
- The Jews of Jesus day had mapped out the prophesies of the Messiah in the way they had believed they would be fulfilled. However, when He came, they missed Him because He did not fit their interpretation of the prophesies.
Reasons to Reject a Duality and Believe in a Congruence of God’s People Whereby the Promises, Prophesies, and Blessings Given to Geo-political Israel are Now Obtained by Those Who Trust in Jesus—from Pauline Theology.
- Romans 2:25-29: Paul argues that anyone, regardless of cultural background can become a Jew by the Spirit. Being circumcised cannot save one or affect his or her status with God, as part of His people. Only those who have been made righteous by the blood of Jesus are part of God’s chosen people.
- Romans 9: Paul explains why Geo-political (GP) Israel will not be saved
- vv. 1-5: Paul laments GP Israel’s condemnation
- vv. 6-8: Paul states that God’s act of not saving GP Israel is not God failing to keep His Word (v. 6) as many were questioning at the time. Here is a declaration that those born physical to GP Israel are not truly God’s people but rather those who accept God’s promise are true Israel.
- vv. 9-14: An example from Jacob and Esau: Here is an example of God deciding who He chooses as His people. He chose Jacob over Esau in this example but the purpose of Paul here is to show that He may decide who His people are. So it is those who come through Jesus who are God’s people and not those who would seem to be His people naturally or physically. In other words, just because He does not choose the first born does not make Him unrighteous.
- vv. 15-23: Examples from Moses, Pharaoh, and the Potter and his clay: Here we see that God has a purpose for why He has chosen and used particular people for certain tasks. In light of this discussion, Paul is showing that although He had chosen GP Israel for the purpose of bringing the Messiah to the nations (see Gen. 12:3: where God states in His call to Abram that in him, all the families of the earth shall be blessed. God’s purpose in the call of Abram was to bless all the nations through Abram’s seed, who is Jesus), does not mean that He has to save GP Israel. Just as God had a purpose for Pharaoh and a potter has a purpose for a clay vessel, does not mean that He has to save them. In the same way, God does not have to save GP Israel.
- vv. 24-29: God has included the Gentiles in true Israel. Paul states that God’s people are now also from the Gentiles. He quotes Hosea to show God’s prophesy about His inclusion of those who were not part of His people. Paul quotes Isaiah to show that only a small number of those born to GP Israel will be saved in the end because of God’s sentence.
- vv. 30-33: Paul finally comes to the conclusion of His argument. It is not one’s birth, nationality, or efforts that determines whether one will be saved, but only those who place trust in the “stumbling stone laid in Zion,” who is Jesus, will be saved. Therefore, God does not have to save GP Israel, but salvation is by faith in the promise of God.
- Romans 11:17-24: In the context of this discussion, Paul states that only a remnant of GP Israel will be included in God’s people. Paul uses the analogy of an Olive tree to show that some of the natural branches (those who were physically born Jews) were cut off because they were not truly connected to the root (as a true or spiritual Jew must be). Therefore, those Gentiles that accept Christ (the root in this analogy) will be like wild branches grafted in. Notice that in this analogy, there is only one tree that is considered to be God’s people. GP Israel is not God’s people. Only those Jews who accept Jesus can remain and those Gentiles who accept Him will be grafted in. But there are no two trees considered God’s people, only one. Today’s physical GP Israel should not be held in high esteem or regard because they are physically descended from Abraham. Some of them will be saved and be part of God’s people, but as a nation, they are no different from any other nation. They are not a special people of God because they have rejected Jesus, the Messiah.
- Galatians 3:10-14: Paul states that one is only justified by faith in Jesus and cannot be justified by trying to observe the law. In verse 14, Paul states that “the blessing of Abraham would come to the Gentiles by Christ Jesus, so that we could receive the promised Spirit through faith.” Paul uses the term “we” to show that both he, a Jew, and his recipients, predominantly Gentile, receive the same blessing of Abraham and the promised Spirit through faith. Gentiles receive every blessing promised to the Jews. Those are God’s people who come to Jesus by faith. Anyone who does not have faith cannot be considered part of God’s people. After Jesus’ coming, it would demean the work of His death and resurrection to state that someone’s birth would give them a special standing before God. Only through faith in Him can anyone be part of His people.
- Galatians 6:15: Here is the concluding statement in Paul’s argument to the Gentile believers that one cannot be saved by the law as the Judaizers (heretics who taught that Jesus’ atonement was not enough, that one would also have to observe the law in order to be saved) were trying to convince them. One is only saved by trusting in Jesus. Therefore, the only prerequisite in order to be included in God’s people is to have been made a new creation (cf. Ez. 36:24-27 and Jer. 31:31-34).
- Ephesians: The main theme of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is the unity of God’s people as one entity.
- 1:9-10: everything is brought together in the Messiah—this includes Jews and Gentiles who trust in Him.
- 1:11-13: Paul and other Jews who accepted Jesus, the Messiah, received an “inheritance in Him” because of their hope in Him. Then Paul states “you” (the Gentile believers in Ephesus), also received Israel’s promised Holy Spirit (cf. Ez. 36:24-27 and Jer. 31:31-34), as proof that they will also receive the “possession” or “inheritance” just the same as Jews who believe in Jesus. The text shows that there is no distinction between Jews or Gentiles in the reception of God’s promises to the Jews, but there is a distinction which is based on who hears the gospel and places faith in Jesus.
- 2:11-13: the blood of the Messiah has given Gentiles “the citizenship of Israel” whereby they obtain the “covenants of the promise.”
- 2:14-18: No more Jews or Gentiles, but one people through Christ.
- v. 14: By His death, Jesus “made both groups one” (Jews and Gentiles) by tearing down the wall of hostility that divided us. In God’s sight, there is no distinction of those born Jewish or those born Gentile because Jesus is our peace with God and therefore with each other.
- v. 15: Jesus desired to create one new man (the church or God’s true people of promise) from the two (Jew and Gentile)
- v. 16: He did this to “reconcile both to God in one body through the cross.” The reconciliation we have in Jesus is the only thing that can make Jew or Gentile part of God’s “one body.”
- vv. 17-18: Jesus came to give peace with God to both, those who were far away (Gentiles) and also to those who were near (Jews). Only those who accept the gospel of Jesus have peace and access to the Father, by the Spirit.
- vv. 19-21: Those who accept Jesus, the cornerstone, are no longer foreigners but are citizens and members of God’s household. Abraham is not the cornerstone, Jesus is. GP Israel is not part of the “whole building” but only those who trust Christ.
- Colossians 3:9-17: A statement that there is no cultural or Geo-Political distinction for those who are in Christ.
- vv. 9-10 states that those who have put off the old self and put on the new self are being renewed in the knowledge of God, their creator.
- v. 11 states that personal, family, and national background have no power or distinction for God’s people because they are “in Christ” and “Christ is all and in all.” Not even Jewish background here gives one a leg up. Only those whether one is in Christ matters.
- v. 12 shows us a statement that those who are in Christ are “God’s chosen ones” who are “holy and loved.” From this verse we see that there is no room for saying that someone who has not or will not accept Christ are God’s people, even if they are of Jewish decent. Only those who are in Christ are “God’s chosen ones.”
- vv. 13-17 calls Christians to love one another based on the fact that they have been accepted as God’s chosen people and are being transformed into the image of Christ.
Reason to Believe in a Posttribulational Return of Christ
- A straight forward reading of Revelation fits the Posttribulationalism best.
- There are only two resurrections mentioned. One at the end of the Tribulation for those who have believed in Jesus (Rev. 20:4-6) and one at the end of the millennium of unbelievers who will be judged by their works (Rev. 20:12-15).
- A return of Jesus before the tribulation is absent in All other accounts in the Bible of Jesus’ return and the rescue of the church show it to be a public event in which everyone will see and hear Him coming (1 Thess. 4:16, Mt. 24:27-31).
- God’s people are shown as going through the Tribulation.
- His people are delivered at the resurrection of the dead (Dan. 12:1-2), not before it.
- There are believers from all tongues, tribes, and nations who come out of the Tribulation (Rev. 7:9, 14), even if they had believed during the Tribulation, they still went through it—God does not deliver His people from this Tribulation.
- Many of God’s people will die during the Tribulation (Rev. 20:4).
- Jesus teaches His disciples to be ready for the Tribulation before His coming in Matthew 24.
- v. 3- it is directed towards His disciples, not the public.
- v. 9- shows that they will go through tribulation
- v. 22- show believers going through tribulation
- vv. 27-33 shows His return and rescue of His people, which will be evident to all, being at the end of Tribulation.
- Tribulation of some sort is guaranteed to those who follow the Lord.
- John 16:33- Jesus tells His disciples that they will have tribulation in this world but that they can find peace in Him through the tribulation because He has overcome the world.
- Romans 8:17- Christians inherit Christ’s sufferings
- Philippians 1:29- It is granted that Christians will suffer
- 1 Pet. 4:12-19- there will be a fiery trial to try Christians because of Jesus’ name at the time of judgment.
- Exodus 11:7- God’s sustained His people as they went through a time of Tribulation.
- Throughout church history, and even today, Christians have suffered greatly in various and numerous parts of the world for Christ.
Arguments against a Doctrine of Pretribulational Rapture
- Novelty of the doctrine of Pretribulational Rapture: It is a very new idea. To my knowledge, no explicit statement of a pretribulational rapture can be found in church history until the 1830s when James Nelson Darby created a system of Dispensational Theology. While statements of a posttribulational return of Christ abound—even from very early church history.
- Irenaeus wrote explicitly from a posttribulational view. He learned from Polycarp who was a disciple of the Apostle John.
- Daniel 12:1: the deliverance promised to God’s people is not specific enough to assume that they will escape the tribulation. However, the least that can be certain is that they will be delivered from the eternal fire of Hell and from God’s wrath. Also, if at least one person is saved during the Great Tribulation, then Daniel 12:1 cannot mean that believers won’t go through the Tribulation, because at least one would.
- Refuting the Imminence Argument– Although those in favor of a pretribulational rapture argue its necessity for the immediacy or imminence of Christ’s return (that He could return at any moment) because if the Great Tribulation comes, then we will be able to count down the exact day that Jesus would return. However, this does not consider that Jesus promises that difficulties will get worse and worse before He comes (Mt. 24) and that these things will be the “labor pains” that the end is near. If difficulties are getting worse and worse from now until then, the Great Tribulation could begin without anyone knowing exactly when it has started. Certainly, Christians in other countries who are being persecuted today, likely believe that this Tribulation has already started. Because no one will know exactly when the Great Tribulation begins, the immediacy/ imminence of Christ’s coming is still preserved in the posttribulational view. Christians must be ready for His coming at any moment because the world is growing in evil and rebellion towards God and intolerance towards those who believe in Jesus.
- 2 Thessalonians 2:2: Paul comforts believers who have been falsely told that Christ had come back and they missed Him. However, Paul comforts them to not worry by telling them Jesus will not return until the Man of Lawlessness comes into full power opposing those who believe in Jesus. This verse shows that followers of Jesus will endure at least a portion of the Tribulation because the Man of Lawlessness does not come into power until half way through the Tribulation.
- Revelation 3:10: This is a text that many who hold to a pre-tribulation rapture sight this verse as evidence that God will remove believers before the Tribulation. However, this verse occurs in the context of a specific message to a specific church at a specific point in time. Although there are practical implications for modern day readers, eschatological events are not in view here. Some proponents of dispensationalism have tried to allegorize this text to say that it refers to a church age rather than to a specific church during the time of John. This allegorizing is an unwarranted and unfaithful hermeneutic (interpretation of the text). There is no indication from the author, John, or from any passage in the Bible that these verses are to be allegorized (The argument at Rev. 3:10 has been made by Dr. John S. Hammett (Ph. D, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and professor of systematic theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary).
- No Biblical Evidence of a Two-Phase Return: There are no Biblical passages that clearly express a two-phase return of Christ. One sees two phases only if it is assumed before coming to these passages. Other passages can only make sense with Christ’s return happening at one point in the future (such as 2 Thess. 2).
Dealing with Accusations Against the Doctrine of Postribulational Return of Christ
- Response to the accusation of not taking the Bible literally: Those in favor of a pretribulational rapture often pride themselves on using a literal interpretation of the Scripture and state that any other view allegorizes Scripture.
- Those holding a pretribulational rapture break their own rule. They do not take the Bible literally. Everyone takes some passages metaphorically because that is the way they were intended to be taken. In The Sermon on the Mount, Jesus did not literally mean to pluck out our eyes or to cut off our hands. He was using commissive or emotive language to tell us to get rid of anything that causes us to sin or stumble. Another example can be found in Ezekiel 36:24-27. God was not saying that He will literally take a heart of stone out of each one of His people, He was saying that He would take out the part of them that desired to rebel against Him and give them His Spirit who would cause them to want to obey God or otherwise have a soft “heart of flesh” toward God. Furthermore, pretribulationists often break their own rule when it comes to prophecy. Many will use Revelation 3:10 to claim that the church will not go through the Tribulation because the text says “I will keep you from the hour of testing.” However, this takes the literal term, hour (60 minutes) and claims it to refer to a seven-year tribulation. Thus they are taking the term metaphorically, not literally.
- Taking the Bible literally can be very unfaithful at times: When trying to correctly interpret Scripture, it is important to find the intention of the Biblical author who was inspired by the Holy Spirit to write what he did. Those who read the Bible do not get to decide what it means, that is the place of the author who was guided by the Spirit. The reader has the task of trying to understand what the author wrote. Different genres of Scripture will require different hermeneutics (interpretation practices). For instance, narratives and epistles are intended to be taken literally on most accounts. Parables are to be understood as fictional stories that generally emphasize one moral or spiritual truth. Wisdom literature should be taken as general principles while poetic literature such as the Psalms often are intended to be taken metaphorically. Likewise, prophetic literature often uses metaphorical language, not intended to be taken literally. When one takes a passage literally that is intended to be taken metaphorically, he or she is unfaithful to the Bible and often on dangerous grounds. An example can be found in Genesis 15:1. God tells Abram not to be afraid because God is his shield. If this is interpreted literally, the reader has broken the second commandment of creating a graven image of God. God intended to express to Abram that He would protect Abram so he would not have to fear, not that Abram could hold God in his hand and stop arrows and swords with Him.
- If all of the prophecies of Jesus were taken literally, Jesus could not be the Messiah:
- Ps. 118:22-23, Mt. 21:42: Here is a prophecy about a capstone being rejected by the builders, but then becoming the cornerstone. If this were to be taken literally, no man could be the Messiah. However, this is a metaphor for the one who will come and be rejected by the Jews but will be the foundation of God’s true people.
- Is. 8:14, Ro. 9:31-33, 1 Pe. 2:7-8: These passages are full of prophecy of the Messiah being a sanctuary, a stone of stumbling, a trap, and a snare. These words are also taken metaphorically because that is the way that Isaiah, Paul, and Peter intended them to be taken as they were guided by the Spirit.
- Dt. 21:23, Ga. 3:13: This prophecy is about one who will be hung on a tree as a curse. However, Jesus was hung upon a man-made cross, which although made from the wood of trees, was not itself a tree and to one who is taking verses literally a cross cannot be a tree.
- Ex. 12:1-11, Is. 53:7, Jn. 1:29-36, 1 Co. 5:7-8, 1 Pe. 1:18-19, Re. 5:6-13, 7:14, 21:22-27, 22:1-4: All of these say that the Messiah is to be a male Passover lamb without blemish who will or has been slain to atone for sin. Jesus was not a male lamb, but these prophecies and statements are to be taken metaphorically, not literally. Jesus did die in the place of sinners to atone for sin, but He was not literally a lamb.
- Mt. 12:38-40: Here the Pharisees ask Jesus for a miraculous sign. Jesus says that just as Jonah was in the belly of a huge fish for three days and three nights, “so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” This is an illusion to Jesus’ burial. But Jesus was crucified on a Friday and resurrected on a Sunday. Taken literally this would not fit Jesus’ death and resurrection. But since, “three days and three nights” is a Semitic idiom to mean any portion of three calendar days, it can be taken as His death and resurrection. Jesus was not in the tomb for a literal three days and three nights, but He was in the tomb for a portion of each of the three days and nights according to Jewish understanding. However, if taken very literally, this prophecy that Jesus has given would not be fulfilled.
- Response to the accusation that those who hold to a posttribulational return of Christ are liberals:
- The reason why being Biblically Liberal is wrong is because liberals undermine the authority of Scripture claiming that sections of it are not true or possible. Many faithful evangelical and Southern Baptist Christians hold to a posttribulational return of Christ and believe strongly in the inerrancy and infallibility of the Scriptures. The question is not whether the Scriptures are true; faithful believers on both sides of the debate agree on that. The right question is: what do these particular passages about the second coming of Jesus mean? Did the author mean for them to be taken literally, generally, metaphorically? Is he speaking of one event or is it two events which appear to be one? Either way, this debate should be carried on with humility and free of such damaging and incorrect accusations.
- The pretribulational rapture views came into existence in the 1830s with dispensationalism. To my knowledge, there are no records of anyone believing otherwise before this time. However, around that time period, many people were questioning Biblical authority and legitimacy. Those who decided to take a stand against such liberal views of the Bible came to be known as fundamentalists. Dispensationalism, which is inseparable from a pretribulational rapture, became very popular among Fundamentalist circles through the Scofield Study Bible and through various Bible Institutes which were developed in opposition to the liberal nature of many seminaries at the time. Therefore, during this time, a large number of the faithful believers held to a pretribulational rapture. This doctrine, because of its strong influence in fundamentalism has wrongly become a test of orthodoxy to some.
Reasons to Appreciate Brothers who believe in a Doctrine of Pretribulational Rapture
- They have a reverence of the Holy Bible: Those who have held to a pretribulational rapture believe in the authority, inerrancy, and infallibility of Scripture and are willing to take a stand on and for the Bible. This is to be applauded with a grateful heart when many others have turned away from the Bible.
- They have held to orthodox Christian principles: Generally, those who have held to a pretribulational rapture have remained faithful to primary and secondary tenants and doctrines of orthodox Christianity without relent.
- They have encouraged excitement in others for the second coming of Christ: In today’s ever busy culture, many believers lose sight of the second coming of Christ. Those who hold to a pretribulational rapture have encouraged others to think and study about the end times and to look forward with great anticipation to the second coming of our Lord.