May 19, 2003 Q & A

Rapture and "Left Behind"


Do you believe the Bible teaches a pre-tribulation rapture? Will the believers in Christ be taken out of this world while the unbelievers are "left behind" to endure the final tribulations before the last day of this world? And will those unbelievers "left behind" have a last chance to repent?


The answer is "No" to all questions. I don't mean that no one in the OPC would say "Yes" to any of these questions, but that the ordained officers of the church cannot take their ordination vows seriously and agree with modern dispensationalism's doctrine of a secret rapture of the church.

Let me first point you to the answers from our creedal standards, the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. Candidates for licensure and ordination in the OPC must answer "Yes" to this second ordination vow: "Do you sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and Catechisms of this church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures?" The identical vow is taken by candidates for elder and deacon.

I quote from Chapter 32, Paragraph 1, of the WCF: "The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption; so their souls, which neither die nor sleep, having an immortal substance, immediately return to God who gave them; the souls of the righteous, being made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God, in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies. And the souls of the wicked are cast into hell, where they remain in torment and utter darkness, reserved to the judgment of the great day. Besides these two places, for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledges none." Paragraphs 2 & 3 simply mention the fact that those living at the last day will, if righteous, be transformed; and if wicked, be judged and cast into the lake of fire.

The dispensational view, of which you apparently speak in your question, hangs on the dispensational interpretation of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. We believe that interpretation to be incorrect. It would appear from the context that Paul was dealing with the fear on the part of some believers in the church that the second coming of Christ would come very shortly. They feared that those believers who had died would have missed out on the glory of the resurrection. The passage is Paul's reassurance that that wasn't the case.

At this point, we need to know whether the apostle was referring to all the dead or just the righteous dead. To the end of chapter 4, it was only the righteous. Verses 15-17: "For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede [go ahead of] those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so shall we always be with the Lord."

One might ask, why did Paul say "...WE who are alive and remain...." since he's been dead for over 1900 years? The answer is simple. Jesus didn't tell the disciples, when they asked, the time of His coming (Acts 1:6). Whether the apostle Paul thought it would be in his lifetime or not we don't know, but the dead in Christ will be first to see the returning Christ. Then whoever is alive at His return will join those raised from their graves and forever be with Him.

In recent generations that event has been called the "Rapture" by dispensationalism. And the assumption is that people will suddenly disappear from cars on the freeway, people at the workshop, and some sleeping in their beds. But 1 Thessalonians 4:17 is not the end of the story.

True, a chapter break comes here, but chapter divisions are not divinely inspired. Paul goes right on speaking of the coming of the Lord in chapter 5:1-11. Why is he still writing about the second coming of Christ? Chapter 5:1-4 speaks of His coming in the figure of "a thief in the night." And that's where dispensationalists get the idea of a "secret rapture." But thieves in the night use the cover of darkness to sneak up on their victims to take them by surprise. And so far, so good. Those living at the time when Jesus comes will be surprised all right.

The coming referred to here, however, is no "secret rapture"! The passage imputes the surprise factor to those who will not be in Christ in that day (vs. 4). But vs. 3 says it all: "While they (the unprepared) are saying, 'Peace and safety!' then destruction will come on them suddenly like labor pains upon a woman with child, and they will not escape." Yes, the coming of our Lord Jesus will come to unbelievers as a thief creeps up on his victims in the night. But there the secrecy ends. Sudden destruction will not come and go quietly.

One more thing should be said about this entire passage, chapters 4 & 5: in 4:13-18, Paul had only believers in view. So he ended that paragraph in his letter with the words, "Therefore comfort one another with these words" - Christians comforting Christians! But he continues with an enlarged context in Chapter 5. He is not necessarily addressing a larger number, since the epistle is to the church in Thessalonica. But the "universe of discourse" is enlarged to include non-Christians. The same thing is true of 2 Thessalonians 2:1-16.

It appears that someone had written, or spoken as if it came from Paul, that the Lord had already returned. He denied having said or written such, saying that the Lord would not return till there come a great falling away and the "man of lawlessness" (the Antichrist?) should be revealed and destroyed by "the breath of His mouth and the brightness of His coming."

One other touch on the Thessalonian church: They were the church that was established by Paul and Silas in a matter of 2 or 3 weeks, after which they were driven out (Acts 17:1-9). So he was eager to teach them much that he would have said in person if he had had more time.

Finally, the thought of putting 1007 years between "the coming of Christ for His saints "and His coming with them at the "Great White Throne Judgment" (at the end of the 1000 year Millennium), doesn't accord with other Scriptures. The dispensationalist pre-millennial view should be rejected because the Bible teaches that Christ's second coming, the resurrection of all the dead, and the final judgment, will come at one time.

I'll give two Scriptures to illustrate this, though they don't stand alone. First, John 5:25-27. This speaks of a "resurrection" that is not a bodily resurrection, and says that the "hour" (John uses that expression for "day" elsewhere in Scripture) is coming and already is come when "the dead" will hear the voice of the Son of God, and, hearing Him, shall live. That is understood as spiritually dead people born again through hearing the Gospel (cf. Ephesians 2:1-9). Then, in John 5:28-30: "Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in their tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did good deeds to the resurrection of life, and those who committed evil deeds to the resurrection of judgment." One "hour" mentioned, but two resurrections - to life and to judgment. True, it's not a 60-minute hour that John has in mind, but it is one point in history, however long or short. Dispensationalists, however, have boldly attempted to stretch that "hour" to 1007 years to include the "rapture" and the last judgment.

But we have a commentary (also written by John) that is overlooked by adherents of dispensationalism. It is Revelation 20 where the judgment of the Great White Throne is found. in verses 11-15. A careful reading of these verses suggests that the resurrection is a physical resurrection of ALL the dead: "And I saw the dead, the great and the small...." "And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them; and they were judged every one of them according to their deeds. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone's name was not found in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire."

But were the wicked only judged? If so, what need for the book of life? And remember, ALL the dead were raised. If all were raised, who came to judgment?

Some dispensationalists argue that Christians are not judged, because John 5:24 says that he who hears and believes Christ's Word and the Father who sent Him, does not come into judgment, but is passed from death into life." But are our sinful deeds also recorded in "the books" (Revelation 20:12)? And had it not been for the book of life, we too, would be thrown into the lake of fire. To say that John 5:24 means that we'll NEVER come into judgment in any sense of that word is wrong. Then what about Paul's words in 2 Corinthians 5:10, "For we must all come before the judgment seat of Christ..."? The difference for Christians is that they will stand there vindicated by the finished work of Christ on the cross.

This has turned into a large answer to three simple questions, but, since the Bible was not written in textbook form, we sometimes need to consider many Scriptures to answer simple questions. And please return for further clarifications if I've not been clear.

One final thing: this all ties in to the whole millennial debate, but since you didn't ask about millennialism, I didn't bring that in, though what I've said does tie into the interpretation of the whole 20th chapter of Revelation.



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