December 5, 2020

Mondays with Michael Spencer: May 2, 2016

Clouds, Photo by Roman Vanur

Clouds, Photo by Roman Vanur

Note from CM: On Mondays, we are hearing some of what Michael Spencer had to say on the subject of eschatology — the last things. Today, here are three questions about “The Rapture,” answered by the iMonk, in which he shows that the doctrine is novel and has no biblical support.

• • •

1. What exactly do you mean by the rapture?

If the advocate means that when Christ returns, those who are alive will meet him in the air, that is not, in and of itself, the problematic doctrine. Scripture clearly says this.

The full dispensational teaching, however, is this:

Christ will return twice. Once secretly, with the saints, in the air to retrieve the church (both living and bodies in the grave;) and again, publicly, to judge the earth following a seven-year tribulation period.

If the advocate simply means that Christ will return once, and separate the church and the world at his appearing, and then proceed to judge and establish his kingdom, then even those of us who may have issues with the specifics of that eschatology would probably have little interest in debating the Biblical merits of the rapture.

The text above says that when Christ returns, there will be a separation. Nothing in the text implies the tribulation or a later, second, return of Christ. It is describing a single event, and is completely compatible with the idea of one return of Jesus.

But if the advocate is indicating that we must believe in two, separate comings of Jesus, with different characteristics, and a seven-year tribulation, then there will be many reasons to say this is not taught in the text in Luke or anywhere else in scripture.

The passages cited above could be applied to either interpretation, so the advocate should be clear what he/she means.

These passage do NOT prove two returns of Christ; one private, one public, separated by seven years.

(In fact, N.T. Wright has convinced me they do not refer to the traditional “Second Coming” at all, but that is another post.)

2. Where does the Bible clearly and plainly teach that Christ will return twice?

This is a key question that rapture advocates need to consider carefully. Note Paul’s words in II Thessalonians 1, regarding the very public return of Christ:

2 Thessalonians 1:9-10 9 They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, 10 when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.

The text is clearly telling the Thessalonians what will happen at the return of Christ. Paul is NOT talking about a secret rapture/tribulation, but a public return/judgement/reward. On “one day” there will be punishment and reward.

Even passages that are repeatedly cited as being about the two-stage rapture are not describing a “secret” event.

1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.

How can this passage be describing a secret event? The kinds of gymnastics that must be applied to say the “cry,” “shout,” and “sound of the trumpet” are part of a secret event are simply not welcome in good interpretation. Holding on to such an interpretation instead of the plain meaning of the text proves that a presupposition is being protected from the text itself.

Nowhere does Paul tell the churches under his charge that Christ will return twice in the dispensational, two returns scenario. He teaches that Christ will return once, publicly, for judgement and reward. Advocates of the two returns scenario must construct Biblical evidence, because there is no single verse that says Christ returns twice.

Further, the idea that God would give a seven year “warning bell” to those who do not believe is an alien and bizarre notion. Consider the implications if this is indeed the case, and every preacher must say that all unbelievers have seven years of warning before the “real” day of judgement arrives.

Advocates of the rapture should admit that not a single text clearly teaches the novel idea of two returns separated by seven years. It is simply not there.

This is important in the third question:

3. Why is the two-stage rapture theory not taught by any major Bible teachers in the broad history of Christianity?

The two-stage + tribulation rapture theory is not mentioned by Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Edwards or Spurgeon. It is not taught by the Puritans or the Catholic Church. It is not part of any classic Christian confession. All believed in one return of Christ.

Why is this? The advocates of the two-stage rapture need to admit that if the great teachers of the church have not found this doctrine, it is a recent innovation.

The actual history of the two-stage return of Christ teaching has been uncovered and published by David Macpherson. The origin of this teaching in a visionary experience by Margaret Macdonald, and its subsequent acceptance into American Evangelicalism by way of Darby and the Scofield study Bible, is an interesting and necessary account to learn. The two stage rapture is an innovation without Biblical support, with a pedigree that should absolutely shock many of those who promote the rapture most vigorously. It is highly ironic that an anti-Charismatic like John Macarthur advocates a doctrine that originated in “charismatic” visions by an end-times prophetess who would be a star of TBN today.

The propagation of this idea in books, music, sermons and novels may have caused most American evangelicals to assume that the Bible teaches the entire rapture-tribulation-return scenario, but the success of the doctrine does not make up for its absence in scripture or Christian history.

Advocates of the two-stage rapture ASSUME that it is the proper interpretation of the Luke texts and other texts. It is a PRESUPPOSITION, and not a conclusion based on what scripture teaches.

I do not believe the two-stage rapture theory is a serious error or a matter of separation, but I do believe its message has many insidious effects on western Christians. They mythology of the rapture is used to promote all kinds of false and manipulative teaching in the church. It is a creation of the enthusiasts, propagated by the evangelical fringe and marketed by the booksellers and publishers for the sake of the its “exciting” story line. I have seen much bad fruit come from it, and I have serious questions about its effects on our mindset about missions and reformation.

Careful students of scripture and those who respect the views of the teachers/confessions of the church that have come before us more than the visions of the “Scottish Lass” or the notes of the questionable C.I. Scofield will take an honest, second look at this doctrine, and let scripture, not American evangelical publishers, have the final word.

• • •

Photo by Roman Vanur at Flickr. Creative Commons License


  1. I went off on one of those evangelical publishers a few months ago—I scrutinized a 40-year-old Spire comic book based on Hal Lindsey’s out-of-date 1970s prognostications, which makes it all the easier to point out where the belief system goes awry.

    But I totally get why the pre-trib rapture idea is so very popular. I’m no masochist; I don’t wanna ride out any tribulation. Who would? I love the idea of getting whisked away before the bad stuff happens. It’s just it’s not in the bible. Jesus warned us we’re gonna have tribulation. (Jn 16.33) Seems inconsistent of him to warn us bad times are coming, if his plan’s to Hoover us away before they ever do.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Ever heard of “Christians For Nuclear War”?

      It wasn’t a defined group but an attitude among End Time Prophecy types you found during the heyday of Hal Lindsay. It wasn’t until decades after getting back to The World that I realized what Lindsay had done:

      He had taken the “everybody knows that” trope of the time — INEVITABLE GLOBAL THERMONUCLEAR WAR(TM), put a Christian coat of paint on it, and offered an Escape Route — the complementary Rapture Boarding Pass with each and every Sinner’s Prayer Fire Insurance Policy. And the Horrors of Inevitable Global Thermonuclear War followed by Eternal Hell were used as Fear Manipulation to close sale after sale — “If you can’t love ’em into the Kingdom, SCARE ‘EM INTO THE KINGDOM!”

      The most insidious of these — and the reason I coined the term “Christians for Nuclear War” — was that Lindsay’s Plain Reading of SCRIPTURE(TM) interpreted ALL the plagues of Revelation as Thermonuclear Weapons Effects (“INEVITABLE GLOBAL THERMONUCLEAR WAR — IT’S PROPHESIED! IT’S PROPHESIED!”). According to every End Times Choreography inflicted on me at the time, the Tribulation would kick off with Global Thermonuclear War, with The Rapture occurring just as the first warheads cut atmo over their targets and the detonation sequences began. But Be of Good Cheer — God Will Beam You Up Before Anything Bad Can Personally Happen To YOU!

      Do I need to go into detail just how dangerous an attitude that was and is? With no stake in anything except My Personal Salvation, Fluffy Cloud Heaven, and getting more people into the Rapture lifeboat before The Inevitable Happens…

      “It’s All Gonna Burn…”

      “This World is Not My Home; I’m Just Passin’ Thru…”

      • Still around. Note all the Christians who don’t believe in, nor care about, climate change. ’Cause rapture.

        No consideration for the fact that, even in their misbegotten timeline, they come back to the world for 10 centuries to run it with Jesus. Guess they’re expecting he’ll magically fix pollution so they don’t have to.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Don’t you remember Volume 13 of “History Written in Advance”, AKA Left Behind?

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          I also vaguely remember the Global Thermonuclear War Lyrics to “Kum-by-yah” on Christianese AM radio in the early Eighties — mostly a long spoken “prayer” voice-over with the music muted in the b/g, coming back to the song chorus at full volume. Can’t remember if they repeated the back-and-forth more than once. Fear Manipulation all the way.

  2. That photo almost looks like a Van Gogh painting.

    Now, to the actual post. 😉 One other thing that probably needs to be mentioned is that the Rapture doctrine goes hand-in-hand with a belief that God’s land and national promises to Israel are still unfulfilled, and that God needs to temporarily get the Church “out of the way” in order to properly settle matters prophetically with Israel and the Jews. There is a great deal of overlap between dispensationalists and evangelical support for Israel because of this – by helping Israel, they think they are helping set the stage for the Rapture and the Tribulation. Of course, after almost 70 years of this, a bit of eschatology fatigue may be settling in… 😉

    • “…a bit of eschatology fatigue may be settling in…”

      Not to mention that, after 70 years, the little country that could has become the little country that actually did. When its GDP has grown from $120 billion in 2002 to over $300 billion today, why, as a purely practical matter, does Israel still need military aid at all? It’s no longer a poor country. Perhaps this fact, too, will sink in with dispensationalists at some point.

    • It should come as no surprise that in some of the seedier districts of the Internet, Dispensationalism is viewed as part of a vast Zionist conspiracy. Much hay is made about John Nelson Darby’s Masonic background and C.I. Scofield’s relationship with Louis Untermeyer and lacunae in the historical records are overlaid with dark supposings. Conspiracy is not necessary where simple confluence of interest is sufficient to explain the phenomena.

      Googling around the Internet, the only certain information I could find was that of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’ financial support of William Blackstone’s Niagra Bible Conference (although Brandeis was not a Justice while the Conference was running, but was appointed some 20 years later).

      Since no one does anti-Semitism like the Orthodox, I checked some Orthodox sources which revealed only that Darby’s influence was salutatory to the Jews. Darby had founded many small Brethren communities in Alsace and France-Comte, where many Jews found refuge during the Holocaust.

      Also, there appears to be no small number of Israeli Jews that are turning to Orthodoxy. I was speaking to a man recently emigrated from Nazareth (yes, that Nazareth) in Galilee, who told me that his church in Israel recently had to institute services in the Hebrew language. When I asked him if this was necessary to accommodate the Christian Arab young people who grow up speaking Hebrew he nodded his head vigorously and stated that here were now more than 400 Jewish converts in his church, nearly all of whom came from recent Russian immigrants or from the Israeli Left. The current Likud government treats them very poorly.

      • See, this is why I am so glad that Burro sticks around. I would never have known about an Orthodox Awakening in Galilee. I find that enormously comforting and encouraging, and not because it “sets the stage” for some sort of end time event. It just reminds me the the Spirit is at work everywhere, and the Good News of Jesus ain’t stopped by nothin.

        • LIkewise, Dave. This is one of the more fascinating developments I’ve heard about within Orthodoxy in years.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            Well, it IS in traditional Orthodox/Eastern Rite territory.

            Though as Burro put it, “Nobody does Anti-Semitism like the Orthodox.”

          • Burro [Mule] says

            Since I do very little to hide my distaste for Bibi Netanyahu and his Likud goons, I am considered profoundly anti-Semitic by most of my Evangelical/Dispie coworkers in my little Ba’tist Bible Belt town.

            I want a single secular Palestinian state so bad I can taste it. That makes my Dispie colleagues hop on one foot and howl. Fortunately, it has about as much chance of coming to pass as the restoration of the Articles of Confederation, so it’s a safe position for me to take that gives me cred with the few leftists here. My pragmatic side tells me that it would lead nearly immediately to a second Holocaust.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Of course, after almost 70 years of this, a bit of eschatology fatigue may be settling in… ?

      Make that “after almost 70 years of “THIS IS IT!!!!!” End Times Prophetic Fulfillments in Today’s Headlines and Pin-the-Tail-on-The-Antichrist…

      You can only hold onto “Any Minute Now… Any Minute Now… Any Minute Now…” for so long before you burn out, go crazy, or ditch everything and go None.

      You know what helped break Darby’s hold over my brain? Discovering 50+ year old End Time Prophecy books that said exactly the same things about now-forgotten Fulfillments in Today’s (now-forgotten) Headlines.

      (This was during the period when Henry Kissinger — remember him? — was Proven From SCRIPTURE to be The Antichrist…)

      And running into a Seventh Day Adventist End Time Prophecy book (titled “What Jesus Said”) that took the exact same chapter-and-verse quotes to Prove a completely-different End Times choreography.

      • You know what helped break Darby’s hold over my brain? Discovering 50+ year old End Time Prophecy books that said exactly the same things about now-forgotten Fulfillments in Today’s (now-forgotten) Headlines.

        I was fortunate in that the library in my first church in the early 90s was well-stocked, with plenty of such prophecy books from the 1960s through 80s. I was quickly able to come to the same conclusions you did, but much earlier in my Christian life. 😉

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          All I can say is those type of older prophecy books were much rarer in the late 70s.

  3. No one has done more to make me question rapture theology than Fred Clark and his Slacktivist deconstruction of the “Left Behind” books. His brilliant satirical writings have exposed the un-Christ-like attitudes that drive much of the enthusiasm for this theology.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      A blog called Daylight Atheism is doing the same to that “Left Behind for Brights(TM)”, Atlas Shrugged. The two are basically the same story fanserviced to different target audiences, flattering the reader that They and They alone are the Truly Elect. And both have truly horrible movie versions.

  4. Christiane says

    I never heard of the ‘rapture’ theory until I started blogging. All those special end-times theories . . . they seem to fascinate people greatly, like entertainment (hence, the books and films). But how can those theories be reconciled with the biblical request to expect Christ to return at any moment and so to ‘be prepared’, and also the advice that only Our Lord knows the ‘when’ . . . the Scriptures point to our being ‘semper paratus’ (always ready) BECAUSE we do not know the hour or the day

    I guess speculation is a part of our human nature . . . but for ‘bible-belt’ folk to not consider Christ’s warning and advice on the matter . . . that is telling of a people who, for all that they are so ‘assured’ of their salvation, are very jumpy about the time of their ‘going’ . . . or ‘staying’, as some think this Earth is the real end-times destination.

    I can handle: ‘Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again’ and I have noticed that being Catholic, I am still a lot more at peace about my ending than a lot of fundamentalists who declare themselves ‘saved’, but exhibit a lot of anxiety about ‘the end times’. For them, maybe it would be better to ‘trust’ in Jesus Christ and then they can understand the peace of ‘all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all and all shall be well’ that transcends worries about ‘when’ and ‘how’ . . . I guess nervous people don’t want to die . . . I guess that is why so many seek a ‘reassurance’ of Christ’s coming before they die, and they want this on top of their assurance that they are saved.

    Trust, even like that of a small child, seems infinitely more comforting, I think. I hope those end-times folks find peace someday, or at least some relief from their worry and their stress.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      I never heard of the ‘rapture’ theory until I started blogging.

      During my time in-country (The Gospel According to Hal Lindsay, tag-teamed with The Gospel According to Jack Chick), I heard nothing else. Not from that shepherding group that almost sucked me in, not from Campus Crusade, not from that local “Studies in the Word of God” that tried to out-Nav the Navigators. Secret Rapture WAS Scripture(TM) — “Do You Doubt GOD’S WORD?”

  5. Richard Hershberger says

    I generally look at Evangelicalism as an outsider trying to figure out this strange phenomenon. This is most true when the Rapture and Dispensationalism comes up. Weirdest of all is the notion that this novel and wildly fantastic imposition on scripture somehow is old-time religion and “literal”. Credit where credit is due: as a matter purely of marketing, this crowd shows real genius. Tell a mainstream journalist that the Left Behind books portray a literal reading of Revelation and the claim will be faithfully repeated, rather than being met with the hoots of derision it deserves.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Same thing happened with Hal Lindsay’s “Late Great Planet Earth” in the Seventies when I was in-country.

      Over 40 years later, the scars are still there.

  6. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Careful students of scripture and those who respect the views of the teachers/confessions of the church that have come before us more than the visions of the “Scottish Lass” or the notes of the questionable C.I. Scofield …

    I once caused a firestorm (Me vs All Comers) on a Christian writer’s forum by asking what was the difference between “The Visions of the Scottish Lass” that led Darby to Secret Rapture and Trance Channelling?

    Now Dispy itself was an attempt to reconcile ALL the apparent discrepancies in the Bible (especially prophetic visions) by dividing history into several different “Dispensations” where God worked differently. All systematic, all fully consistent, every jot ant tittle nailed down solid, all Old Story reduced to a checklist of Facts and Axioms, all reading Poem Truth through Math Truth glasses.

    And during my time in-country (back when the Bible consisted of 3 1/2 books: Daniel, Revelation, the “Nuclear War Chapter” of Ezekiel (the 1/2), and (Most Important, superseding the other 2 1/2) “Late Great Planet Earth”), I heard nothing different. Dispy was taught as if it were spelled out Word-For-Word in each and every Chapter and Verse. Until I burned out and got back to The World, I HEARD NOTHING OTHER THAN DISPY. NOTHING.

    • Just like how Ellen White’s supposed visions are the underpinnings of much current 7 day creationism, eh?

  7. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    I have seen much bad fruit come from it, and I have serious questions about its effects on our mindset about missions and reformation.

    As in:
    * Fluffy Cloud Heaven instead of Olam-Ha-Ba?
    * Turning Creation Care and Tikkun Olam into “It’s All Gonna Burn, So Why Bother?”
    * Stoking Wretched Urgency and a Gospel of Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation? (tick tick tick tick tick tick tick…)
    * Turning Christ into a TurboChrist of Fear, a Cosmic Monster of (lip-smacking) Destruction?

  8. Stephen says

    I was just a kid but I remember when Hal Lindsey’s LATE GREAT PLANET EARTH cam out in the 70s and the obsession with the “End Times” swept through the churches in the south. I remember too all those breathless sermons and fraught Bible studies and the excitement generated by the idea that the end was just around the corner. But I was always a reader and early on I developed a habit that has stood me in good stead. When I become interested in a subject I read EVERYTHING about it. As a consequence it doesn’t matter where you start because if you read everything you’ll eventually find the good stuff even though you might have to wade through a lot of the bad to get to it. So eventually I read actual scholars on the subject of Jewish and Christian apocalyptic and sure enough I finally figured out what books like Daniel and Revelation are REALLY about.

    Two points. First, the earliest form of Christianity was so infused with apocalypticism that the tradition has never been able to completely free itself from it. So you have occasional outbreaks of apocalyptic fervor followed by a great disappointment and then the subsequent forgetting until the next time. What made the twentieth century version so compelling is that we lived through apocalyptic times anyway.

    Second, I am amazed and amused how these concepts, so esoteric and obscure in origin, have spread out into our popular culture. So much so that people who have zero background in the dispensationalist tradition nevertheless know the “End Times” mythology of the rapture and the tribulation and the beast 666. Which just go to show I guess that our popular culture is capable of absorbing anything, even the idea of its own destruction.

    A quick look at religious broadcasting reveals that prophecy shows still abound. Even good ole Hal Lindsey himself is still at it. Seems the message was a lot more entertaining back in the old days though. I find Pastor John Hagee dreary and depressing and incoherent. I can’t say I know what he’s talking about most of the time other than it doesn’t sound like any gospel I’ve ever heard.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      So much so that people who have zero background in the dispensationalist tradition nevertheless know the “End Times” mythology of the rapture and the tribulation and the beast 666.

      Yet in Late Great Planet Earch, Left Behind et al, the writers assume NOBODY outside of the BABBECS (Born Again Bible-Believing Evangelical Christians) have EVER heard of the Rapture or Antichrist (or Christ for that matter). This in a mainstream culture with a Christian background that has been bombarded by End Times imagery/terminiology for the past 50 years.

      • Wow, you seem to have had some bad experiences of Dispensationalism, HUG.

        And i thought I had it bad, having spent a few years in a christian union with inflexible doctrine, wretched urgency, and motivation by guilt (in my experience, at least).

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Not just bad experiences, but the type of core personality that internalizes everything and takes it HARD.
          (For example, my introduction to Ufology was from the Adamskyites, i.e. the original Saucer Cult. That was also one strange trip…)

          And “inflexible doctrine, wretched urgency, and motivation by guilt” all went hand-in-hand with Dispy as part of the package. The “any minute now” eschatology just compounded it and supercharged the wretched urgency.

          There’s a LOT of Bad Eschatology out there.

  9. I guess it seems like easy pickings to dis dispensationalism these days, but it wasn’t always so. When Michael wrote this, it was only a few edgy “reformed” types in evangelicalism that would dare reject dispensationalism. I don’t judge eschatology too harshly, because it is all essentially man made, but dispensationalism is harder to swallow than others. But at the end of the day, I think the one thing that any eschatology has to grapple with is that Jesus didn’t return when the Apostles (and Jesus himself, apparently) thought. Not too surprising, since Jesus said that only the Father knew, but it sure can get complicated for inerrantists.

  10. Robert F says

    Well, I woke up this morning and I got myself a beer
    Well, I woke up this morning and I got myself a beer
    The future’s uncertain and the end is always near

    Roadhouse Blues, The Doors

  11. Robert F says

    Sound of pouring rain
    on the roof, in the gutters,
    in my dreamless sleep.