***Update from August 11 – In the light of the meltdown that this post has caused, and in response to a friend who gave me a little “what for” with regards to this post, I’ve gone through and attempted to edit it and soften my responses as much as possible. This is a touchy subject matter and I didn’t treat either John Piper or Justin Taylor with the respect that they deserve. We’re all works in progress…some with more room for progress than others…sigh***
A few days ago, I had an article passed on to me called Nine Reasons We Can Be Confident Christians Won’t Be Raptured Before The Tribulation from Justin Taylor’s blog, in which he was summarizing/re-blogging an article by John Piper. A bunch of folks got worked up (on the internet? What?), but my superiors asked me to respond and so I agreed to write a response. Now I’m no stranger to disagreement and my various theological positions that have essentially made me the sweaty asthmatic nerd on the playground of Evangelicalism (nobody likes an outspoken cessationist who is Calvinistic and dispensational), so I’ve basically got nothing to lose!
Justin Taylor linked to this article by John Piper and delivers nine reasons why he finds the concept of the pre-tribulational rapture problematic. Let’s take a look at each one in full, and I’ll post my responses in green:
Point 1. The word for “meeting” the Lord in the air in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 (apantesin) is used in two other places in the New Testament: Matthew 25:6 and Acts 28:15. In both places it refers to a meeting in which people go out to meet a dignitary and then accompany him in to the place from which they came out. One of these, Matthew 25:6, is even a parable of the second coming and so a strong argument that this is the sense of the meeting here in 1 Thess. 4:17—that we rise to meet the Lord in the air and then welcome him to earth as king.
The word is used in three other places; Matthew 25:1, 25:6; and Acts 28:15. In Matthew 25:1 & 6 the word is used of the ten virgins going out to meet the bridegroom (not really a dignitary) and Acts 28:15 involves a passing mention of how the Christians at Rome came out to meet Paul (but says nothing about accompanying him back, though they no doubt did). I’d dare suggest that attempting to construct a nuanced meaning beyond the idea of “going forth to meet someone”, especially when the term occurs three times in the NT, is somewhat reaching. Ignoring that all, the whole idea can easily work within a pre-tribulational framework even if the nuanced definition is intact: Christ removes the church from the world, they’re with him during the tribulation, and the raptured believers accompany Christ to earth (after the tribulation) where he’s welcomed as king. This is, at best, a wet noodle slap against the idea of the rapture…but he’s got eight more points to make!
Point 2. The wording of 2 Thessalonians 1:5-7, when read carefully, shows that Paul expects to attain rest from suffering at the same time and in the same event that he expects the unbelievers to receive punishment, namely, at the revelation of Jesus with mighty angels in flaming fire. This revelation is not the pre-tribulational rapture but the glorious second coming. Which means that Paul did not expect an event at which he and the other believers would be given rest seven years before the glorious appearing of Christ in flaming fire. Vengeance on unbelievers and rest for the persecuted church come on the same day in the same event.
This whole line of reasoning seems to assume post-tribulationalism. God will “repay with affliction those who afflict you” (vs. 6) and “to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us” (vs. 7). When will this occur? This will occur “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels” (vs. 8). This will also occur “when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed” (vs. 10). What’s interesting is that the NET translates vs. 7 as “and to you who are being afflicted to give rest together with us”. There’s a case to be made here (which I won’t go into due to issues of length) that Paul and those with him will have already been given rest at the time of the revealing of the Lord, and those who are afflicted at that time will join Paul (and those with him) in the rest they already experience.
Also, vs. 10 speaks of Christ being “glorified in his saints” and (separate category), “marveled at among all who have believed“. If pre-tribulationalism is true, it would make sense that the dead believers (who are now sinless and awaiting the resurrection) are the “saints” where as Christians who survive the tribulation are the “all who have believed”, seeing that they’re neither (totally) sinless nor glorified at that time. If they’re all just one category, it’s strange that Paul so clearly talks about two separate categories of people who celebrate the second coming.
Point 3. The wording of 2 Thessalonians 2:1-2 suggests that the “assembling to meet him” is the same as “the day of the Lord” about which they are confused. But the assembling is the “rapture” and “the day of the Lord” is the glorious second coming. They appear to be one event.
Supporting this is the reference to “gathering” the elect in Matthew 24:31. Here there is a gathering (same word) but it is clearly a post-tribulational context. So there is no need to see the gathering and the day of the Lord in 2 Thessalonians as separate events.
I don’t understand why these two passages need to be discussing separate events. If Matthew 24:31 is clearly a post-tribulational gathering (and I’d suggest that it is the gathering of the elect at the end of the tribulation), then why is the “being gathered together” in 2 Thessalonians 1:1 not post-tribulational as well, especially seeing that 2 Thessalonians 2:1-8 talks at length about the revealing of the “man of lawlessness”; the AntiChrist? The Thessalonians were confused about two events that were both in the distant future. If the assembling isn’t the rapture (and I’d suggest it isn’t), then this whole argument doesn’t seem to be as strong as it first appears.
Point 4. If Paul were a pre-tribulationist why did he not simply say in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 that the Christians don’t need to worry that the day of the Lord is here because all the Christians are still here? Instead he talks just the way you would expect a post-tribulational person to do. He tells them that they should not think that the day of the Lord is here because the apostasy and the man of lawlessness have not appeared. . . .
This assumes post-tribulationalism again. If the day of the Lord (the specific “day of the Lord”, not the general time period) is at the end of the tribulation (after all that stuff about the man of lawlessness occurs), then Paul’s not lying to them. He’s just not saying “don’t worry, you won’t be here”…but that assumes that no Christians will be around for the tribulation. Pre-tribulationalists all believe that many people will get saved in the tribulation (though most of them won’t last long), and the scriptures are written for them too, not just us.
Point 5. When you read Matthew 24 or Mark 13 or Luke 21, which are Jesus’ descriptions of the end times, there is no mention of a rapture removing believers from the events of the end. A normal reading gives no impression of a departure. On the contrary, he talks as if the believing listeners and then the readers would or could experience the things he mentions. See Mt. 24:4, 9, 15, 23, 25f, 33, etc.
See previous comment. Also, why exactly does Jesus (or anyone else) have to give every detail of the entire program of eschatology every time he mentions the subject? Did Jesus do that on any other subject? Did any biblical writer do that with any other subject?
Point 6. Going through tribulation, even when it is appointed by God, is not contrary to Biblical teaching. See especially 1 Peter 4:17; 2 Thessalonians 1:3-10; Hebrews 12:3-11. But even so, Revelation 9:4 suggests that the saints will be in some measure protected in the time of distress by the seal of God.
1 Peter 4:17 suggests that Christians will go through the tribulation? I don’t see how that’s the case in that passage.
1 Thessalonians 1:3-10? That passage says that we’ll go through the tribulation? Verse 10 says “…Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” Call me crazy, but that sounds like believers are not going to face the wrath to come.
Hebrews 12:3-11 somehow suggest that Christians will endure the tribulation? Is God’s disciplining of believers somehow the same as the coming end-time tribulation? General references to “tribulation” or “suffering” aren’t the same as specific references to “the time of Jacob’s trouble” (Jeremiah 30:7) or the “great tribulation” that is unequaled from the beginning of history (Matthew 24:21) and is a specific time of tribulation (Matthew 24:29; Revelation 7:14). It honestly seems that some post-tribulationalists seem to, in practice, operate as if “suffering” and “tribulation” and “discipline” and “wrath” are all generally synonymous in the scripture.
Finally, Revelation 9:4 suggests that Christians will have some measure of protection? Well, not if 1 Peter 4:17 and Hebrews 12:3-11 are what we’re talking about! 1 Peter and Hebrews suggest the exact opposite; the struggle/discipline mentioned in those passages starts with the church and is specifically worse for unbelievers (i.e. Hebrews 12:7-8). What’s being suggested (at least in a roundabout way), is that the Lord will protect believers from his own discipline of them that’s supposed to produce a harvest of righteousness. Call me crazy again, but that seems incredibly strange…
Point 7. The commands to “watch” do not lose their meaning if the second coming is not an any-moment one. See Matt. 25:1-13 where all ten maidens are asleep when the Lord returns. Yet the lesson at the end of the parable is, “Watch!” The point is that watching is not gazing up for an any-moment-return of the Lord; it is the moral vigilance that keeps you ready at all times doing your duty—the wise maidens had full lanterns! They were watchful!
Nor does the teaching that the second coming will be unexpected lose its force if post-tribulationism is true. See Luke 12:46 where the point is that if a servant gets drunk thinking that his master is delayed and will not catch him-that very servant will be surprised and taken off guard. But as 1 Thess. 5:1-5 says, “You (believers) are not in darkness for that day to surprise you like a thief.” We still teach that great moral vigilance and watchfulness is necessary lest we be lulled asleep and fall prey to the deceits of the last days and be overtaken in the judgment.
The commands to watch involve the imminence of the rapture component of the second coming, not descent to earth and destruction of unbelievers component of the second coming. And why quote 1 Thessalonians 5:4? 1 Thessalonians 5:3-4 reads:
For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief.
So will the day of the Lord surprise believers? No? So how exactly does that work? How can believers be not surprised at an event that might happen at any time? Could it be that the rapture is the imminent any moment event that comes without any warning or preceding signs and the tribulation and second coming (as in the specific second coming where Christ descends from Heaven, destroys his enemies, gathers the surviving believers from around the world, etc.) comes with a whole lot of signs that unbelievers won’t see for what they are? (like all the stuff mentioned in Matthew 24, 2 Thessalonians 2, Revelation 3-19, etc.). Just thinking out loud here.
Point 8. The strongest pre-tribulational text, Rev. 3:10, is open to another interpretation without any twisting. It says, “Because you have kept my word of patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial which is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell upon the earth.” But to “be kept for the hour of testing” is not necessarily to be taken out of the world during this hour, and thus spared suffering. Compare Gal. 1:4 and Jesus’ prayer for his disciples in John 17:15where to “keep from” does not mean physical removal. And notice the inevitability of martyrdom in Rev. 6:9-11. The promise is to be guarded from the hour in the sense of being guarded from the demoralizing forces of that hour.
So “keep from” doesn’t necessitate physical removal because it doesn’t mean that in Galatians 1:4 or John 17:15? The phrase “keep from” (tereo + ek) only occurs in Revelation 3:10 and John 17:15, though the verb tereo occurs another 73 times in the New Testament. John 17:15 is also clearly talking about an absence of physical removal, so I’ll give John Piper (and Justin Taylor) the point on the verb here…they’re certainly right. The question then follows: what is the Father keeping believers from? Tribulation? The hour of trial that is coming on the whole world? No. John 17 uses the verb tereo multiple times: The believers have kept (tereo) God’s word (John 17:6), Jesus asks the Father to “keep (tereo) them in your name” (John 17:11) and Christ says that he has “kept (tereo) them in your name” (John 17:12). The “keep them from the evil one” in John 17:16 is in the immediate context of sustaining the salvation of believers and protecting them from temptation, not shielding them from trial or tribulation. In other words, John 17:16 is talking about something totally different than Revelation 3:10. The fact that a verb means one thing in one passage doesn’t mean it means the same thing somewhere else in scripture.
Galatians 1:4 is a totally different word (exaireo), so the point doesn’t even hold up there. Not only that, but if the hour of trial in Revelation 3:10 (a time of trial) is coming on the whole world to try those who dwell upon the earth (i.e. everyone who lives on planet earth), and Christ will keep believers from that hour, where on earth would they be placed where they would not face that trial? There may not be an obvious indication of physical removal, but it definitely makes more sense than twisting the passage into some sort of arbitrary metaphor.
Revelation 6:9-11 makes just as much sense if there have been martyrs throughout history and in the tribulation. The promise isn’t to be “guarded from the demoralizing forces of that hour” but rather kept “from the hour of trial which is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell upon the earth.” That’s pretty broad spectrum talk and would make sense if the church is removed, but the gospel will still be going forth with massive fruit in the tribulation. Many people will get saved and many people will get murdered for their faith.
Point 9. The second coming does not lose its moral power in post-tribulationism. New Testament moral incentive is not that we should fear being caught doing evil, but that we should so love the appearing of the Lord that we want to be pure as the Lord is pure, for whom we hope, as 1 John 3:1-3 says.
Okay…but does the moral power/thrust of any eschatological position indicate whether or not it’s true? The only thing I’m concerned about is whether or not it is derived from the reasonable and accurate exegesis of scripture. Pre-tribulationalists also long for the appearing of the Lord and strive for purity in the light that our master may return at any moment. We too hold to that hope and attempt to obey John 3:1-3.
So that sums up my response to his article.
Now I celebrate the life and ministry of both John Piper (who gave me my wife) and Justin Taylor (who’s done wonderful work at Crossway). I understand that they’re not on the same page as me when it comes to hermeneutics and, as a result, eschatology. I also know that many who have left pre-tribulational circles (as well as other circles that people love to hate) tend to have had painful encounters with with ignorant, judgmental or even vindictive elders.
I get that. I know that there’s bad defenders of pre-tribulationalism out there, and I get that there’s obnoxious arguments and graceless “end times evangelists” who teach ideas about the end times that are laughable.
That being said, I also get the idea from a lot of ex-pre-trib fellows that a majority of their understanding of pre-tribulationalism comes from crabby elders and silly extra-biblical ideas that they rejected in their youth (I too was caused to suffer through Jack Van Impe videos). When I have conversations with ex-pre-tribs, I regularly learn that many of them haven’t done much serious reading of pre-tribulationalism in their recent adult years, and generally assume that the theological convictions they reached when they were young are mature and settled, although they wouldn’t ever say that about any other point in their theology. That’s kinda the first think I thought when I saw that the article was from 1987…Has John Piper gone back to the topic in the last 27 years? Has he grown on his understanding of this topic since then, or has he simply stuck with his convictions from 1974 (when he was 28 and fresh out of school) that were rightfully reactionary against a bad expression of pre-tribulationalism (I too disliked Hal Lindsey’s best-selling book), but sadly were parroting the same old arguments that have been soundly refuted time and again?
I just had to get that point off my chest.
Now, home for ice cream and Cranford!