Dismantling the "Rapture"

The “Christless Christianity” series has been brilliant and this week’s installment is no exception. Our dispensational friends tell us that they read the bible “literally” and that amillennialists “spiritualize” Scripture. This might be compelling if we never actually looked at any passages. A close, grammatical, historical reading of the key passages (1 Thess 4 or Matt 24 or Rev 20) shows that none of them say anything like what Tim LaHaye or Charles Ryrie or John MacArthur claim.

It turns out that what our dispensational friends call a “literal” reading has more to do with their rationalist a priori convictions (“this passage has to teach x because we all know that….”). The great a priori is that God’s real plan is to have a national Israelite people, that it is God’s intention to set up an earthly millennium and to reinstitute the temple. A close, careful, literal, historical, grammatical reading of Scripture leads us to the exact opposite conclusion. As Mike, Kim, Ken, and Rod point out, the Old Covenant is obsolete (2 Cor 3; Heb 7-10). The typology (temple) has been fulfilled in Christ. Scripture teaches nothing about a reinstitution of a national people, an earthly millennium, the European Union, Russia, helicopters, or the secret rapture. In fact, if we pay attention to Scripture you want to be be LEFT BEHIND. In Matt 24, to be “taken” is bad indeed. The flood came and took them all away. Noah was left behind. By analogy don’t we want to identify with Noah instead of those who drowned?

Closer to home, the Reformed churches have been afflicted in recent decades with a similar sort of rationalism. As Kim points out in the broadcast, most of our partial and full preterist friends are former dispensationalists. They’ve traded their rationalist chiliasm for rationalist preterism (i.e., the claim that everything in Matt 24 and the Revelation (see Dennis Johnson’s excellent commentary on the Revelation for sound and sane commentary; see Colin Hemer’s excellent work on the Letters to the Seven Churches for the date and setting of the Revelation) was fulfilled in AD 70). Full preterism is, of course, heresy against the catholic faith that confesses a bodily future return of Christ. There are forms of partial preterism, however, which often go hand-in-glove with triumphalist postmillennialism and theonomic ethics and Christian Reconstructionism that has to make the messiness of a semi-realized biblical eschatology go away in order to facilitate their program of cultural transformation and their own version of an earthly glory age.

Both the preterist/postmil/reconstructionist glory age and the dispensational premil glory age are manifestations of what Luther called the “theology of glory.” The confessional Protestants, however, at least in the 16th century, taught a theology of the cross. It’s true that in the early 17th century forms of chiliasm became disturbingly popular in Reformed circles. We can be thankful today that we are neither saddled with some of the old views of science (geocentrism etc), politics (theocracy), or eschatology (chiliasm). Scripture teaches no future earthly golden age.

The thing to which we are looking is heaven and the consummation. As I’ve been reading the accounts of the martyrs I am impressed again by the fact that only in modern America could we mistake for Christianity a gnostic theology of secret rapture that magically delivers us from tribulation.

For more on this see Kim Riddlebarger’s outstanding work, The Case for Amillennialism. After that, there is follow up, The Man of Sin.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

    More by R. Scott Clark ›

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22 comments

  1. Another great post. However, shouldn’t we be careful not to lump all partial preterists into the transformationist category? For example, RC Sproul in his book “The Last Days according to Jesus” defends a form of preterism with some good exegetical grounding, without seeming to carry the baggage of reconstructionism, etc.

  2. Fair enough, but R C was a late-comer to this discussion and isn’t the leading edge of preterism in the Reformed Churches and the Reformed “world” more broadly.

  3. As a Dallas Seminary grad (’80), I can vividly recall lectures on eschatology in a core systematic theology course taught by John Walvoord. Here I was, as a seminarian, wrestling through the issues around the time that Gundry’s book on posttribulationism had come out, when I was stunned by Walvoord’s contention that the pretribulation rapture doctrine was an inference from the doctrine of the church as a program/people distinct from Israel. An inference, I thought; that’s it? That was the argument. Now perhaps others have argued it differently and more capably than Walvoord, but that was his argument offered in the context of lectures for seminarians on eschatology.

  4. rfwhite: In light of your aversion to basing one’s theology on “an inference from the doctrine of the church,” am I right to assume that you are not a paedobaptist?

    🙂

  5. Benjamin,

    I doubt that we can speak of “the eschatology of the puritans.” As far as I know the eschatological views of “the Puritans” (an equally problematic category) were diverse.

    I referred to at least one eschatological view (chiliasm) among 17th-century British Reformed in the post. Some may have been what is today called “postmillennial,” and some held what is today called “amillennial” views. See Jeff Jue’s book on Joseph Meade & co for a starter. That would be a good counterbalance to the claims made by Iain Murray.

  6. If I “infer” from RFWhite’s name that he is Caucasian, that’s pretty inept. Reggie White (r.i.p.) of NFL fame might want to check my syllogism.

    If I “infer” from Matt Waymeyer’s post that he is not a paedobaptist, I’ve done exegesis.

    I think the point in RFW’s remarks was that the case for a pretribulation rapture (a doctrine already dependent on a faulty eschatology) was not being defended by any sort of exegetical argument, but rather being touted as a “commonsense deduction” from dispensational ecclesiology, taken as a whole.

    The propriety of baptizing infants may be described as “inferential,” but we certainly don’t ask people to buy-into our whole doctrine of the church, and then tack-on paedobaptism. Paedobaptism is viewed as part of defining what the church is, so it has to be founded on axiomatic propositions, forming valid syllogisms, long before the shape of ecclesiology has been finally determined.

    If the propositions it is based on are sound, then good and necessary consequence make paedobaptism <biblical, not speculative. For instance:
    1) God put the children of believers into his church, Gen. 17.
    2) He alone has the authority to put them out.
    3) He has nowhere put them out.

    4) :. Children of believers are members of his church.

  7. If I “infer” from RFWhite’s name that he is Caucasian, that’s pretty inept. Reggie White (r.i.p.) of NFL fame might want to check my syllogism.

    If I “infer” from Matt Waymeyer’s post that he is not a paedobaptist, I’ve done exegesis.

    I think the point in RFW’s remarks was that the case for a pretribulation rapture (a doctrine already dependent on a faulty eschatology) was not being defended by any sort of exegetical argument, but rather being touted as a “commonsense deduction” from dispensational ecclesiology, taken as a whole.

    The propriety of baptizing infants may be described as “inferential,” but we certainly don’t ask people to buy-into our whole doctrine of the church, and then tack-on paedobaptism. Paedobaptism is viewed as part of defining what the church is, so it has to be founded on axiomatic propositions, forming valid syllogisms, long before the shape of ecclesiology has been finally determined.

    If the propositions it is based on are sound, then good and necessary consequence make paedobaptism biblical, not speculative. For instance:
    1) God put the children of believers into his church, Gen. 17.
    2) He alone has the authority to put them out.
    3) He has nowhere put them out.
    ——————————————-
    4) :. Children of believers are members of his church.

  8. Dr. Clark,

    I would doubt the Puritans who did hold to a “Post-Millenial” understanding would fit anywhere near the “Theology of Glory” of Luther’s Disputation, neither would most Post-Mills today, even those Post-Mills who are of the CR persuasion. Marcellus Kik is a good example of a Post-Mill who is not CR and is far from any permeation that could be construed to be aligned with those targeted by Luther. There is just no relation between Post-Millennial eschatology and a Theology that sees power in the Law of God towards righteousness.

  9. Bruce: I fully understand that rfwhite’s point was that “the case for a pretribulation rapture…was not being defended by any sort of exegetical argument, but rather being touted as a ‘commonsense deduction’ from dispensational ecclesiology, taken as a whole.” I was merely pointing out the humorous irony that many paedobaptists argue in precisely the same way: the case for infant baptism is not defended by any sort of exegetical argument, but rather is touted as a commonsense deduction from covenantal ecclesiology taken as a whole. B.B. Warfield’s syllogism (which you cited above) illustrates this very well.

  10. Matt,

    My understanding of infant is related to my understanding of covenant theology but that’s not to say that it’s not driven by biblical exegesis. Hermeneutics necessarily requires the reader to account for the particular, “this passage” and the universal (the context in which the particular occurs).

    What I was objecting to above is the repeated claim that amillennialism is not reading the Bible literally, historically, grammatically. We certainly are. 1 Thess 4 says nothing about a secret rapture. Matt 24 teaches us that believers will be “left behind.” The literal reading of Scripture teaches us nothing about a reconstructed Jewish temple etc.

    So too, I was driven to paedobaptism by a literal, grammatical reading of Scripture. God said, “I will be a God to you and to your children.” The Apostle Peter says that promise is still for today (Acts 2:39). That’s the literal, grammatical, historical teaching of Scripture. Peter said, “For the promise is to you and to your children….” What promise? The Abrahamic promise of Gen 17. It was the defining promise. Its the promise to which the Apostle Paul appealed in Gal 3-4 and Rom 3-4. For more on this see this post.

    Thus I was driven to my paedobaptist convictions by following the Apostle Paul’s hermeneutic, by the Apostle Peter’s hermeneutic, by following Jesus’ hermeneutic as revealed in Holy Scripture.

    I’ve re-posted here a series from the old HB on the question of knowing and observing the apostolic hermeneutic.

  11. Dr. Clark: I understand, and frankly my comment was not at all directed toward you or what you wrote in your original post (although it might be helpful for your readers to know that most pre-tribulationalists—including men you cited like Walvoord, Ryrie, and MacArthur—do not believe that Matthew 24:40 refers the rapture of the church but rather to the judgment of unbelievers). I was simply pointing out that most paedobaptists are “guilty” of the same thing that rfwhite was criticizing Walvoord for—basing their theological conclusions, at least in part, on inferences drawn from their ecclesiology. I understand that paedobaptists go to specific passages of Scripture, exegete those passages, and draw from them what they believe are good and necessary inferences, and so does Walvoord in the case he makes for the rapture. It’s one thing to say that Walvoord is wrong in (a) his ecclesiology, (b) his exegesis, or (c) the inferences he draws from a combination of (a) and (b), but I’m not sure a paedobaptist can criticize Walvoord’s methodology without indicting himself in the process. No big deal. Just pointing out what struck me as humorously ironic. I figured Baptists would laugh at my comment and paedobaptists would just roll their eyes at it and say a quick prayer for me.

  12. Perhaps I can restate the point I was attempting to communicate by using Matt’s words. That is, when Walvoord lectured on the rapture at Dallas and contended that the pretribulation rapture doctrine was an inference from the doctrine of the church as a program/people distinct from Israel, he, in fact, did not go to specific passages, did not exegete those passages, and did not draw from them what he believed by good and necessary inferences. In his lectures, Walvoord made no attempt to make his case either by appealing to texts in Scripture or by appealing to good and necessary inferences from those texts. Rather he drew an inference by appeal to a doctrine, his doctrine of the church. Perhaps Walvoord proceeded differently in places other than his lectures, but he did not in the lectures for which I was present. All this said, I would agree that, if a paedobaptist argued his case in such a manner, he would be indicting himself.

  13. rfwhite: Fair enough, and thank you for the clarification. Of course, those who have read Walvoord’s 300-page book “The Rapture Question” (published in 1957 and revised in 1979) will find a much more balanced approach than he apparently took in his lectures at DTS when you were a student there.

  14. PL,

    Yes, the OT often presents the future in terms of a golden age, but how does the NT interpret that language?

    See the Second Helvetic Confession ch. 11, which says in part:

    “We further condemn Jewish dreams that there will be a golden age on earth before the Day of Judgment, and that the pious, having subdued all their godless enemies, will possess all the kingdoms of the earth. For evangelical truth in Matt., chs. 24 and 25, and Luke, ch. 18, and apostolic teaching in II Thess., ch. 2, and II Tim., chs. 3 and 4, present something quite different.”

  15. Dr. Clark,

    We are in agreement that the NT is a valid (in fact, the only valid) way to properly interpret OT Prophecy. That is an area where premillennialists like MacArthur would disagree.

    However, we are still left to two issues:

    1.) Unfulfilled NT prophecies which say the same thing (notable Romans 11 and 1 Cor.15)

    2.) The earthly extent of the kingdom, as prayed for in the Lord’s prayer and guaranteed in the Great Commission and Beatitudes.

    The real difficulty here the rise of “Optimistic Amillennialism”, which adopts the preterist view of prophecy, but denies the fulfillment of the Great Commission in this “church age”. You do not appear to be of that stripe.

    Romans 11 is of particular interest. There can be little doubt that there will be a salvation of “Israel after the flesh” (however one defines that) after the “fulness of the gentiles has come in”. This seems to agree completely with the OT Kingdom prophecies.

    ALso consider the nature of the kingdom, which I am currently working on. The consummation of Christ’s Kingdom will not be brought about by soem cataclysmic event, but will grow like leaven until it fills the whole earth. (Matthew 13). This agrees with Daniel’s prophecy concering the rock that smote the image.

  16. I think scripture especially {new Test} is pretty clear that as time goes on the world will get more wicked before the 2nd advent, not better. A golden age before the return as postmillenialism teaches cannot be found. As in the days of Noah, is what Christ taught. The days of Noah were extremely wicked, and it also fits my take on the end days when we also take into consideration the word that says, “Satan has been cast down to earth and is greatly enraged because he knows that his time is short”. This occurs during the last part of the 1000 yr reign {which is now} and just before the 2nd coming.

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