Once upon a time there was a little boy and his sister who went shopping with their mom. When they arrived at one of the stores, the mother said she was going to run into the store and be back in a few minutes. Being eight years old, the boy wasn’t worried about being alone, but his sister wanted to make sure that their mom would come back soon because she was a scaredy-cat. When the mom left, the two siblings went back to ignoring each other while they read their books. And what, might you ask, happened next? Jesus returned!
You see, while those two children were sitting in the car, the loudest sounding trumpet that either of them had ever heard was blown! And since those two children had been taught that the secret Rapture would happen when a loud and final trumpet would sound, they instantly were in panic mode. For starters, the boy wasn’t quite sure if he’d actually go up in the Rapture, so he immediately decided to be a follower of Jesus for real (and later got baptized). When their mother came back, they excitedly asked her whether she had heard the trumpet or not. “Did you hear it,” asked the boy. “Did you heard the trumpet? Jesus has come back!,” he exclaimed. “No,” the mom said, “I didn’t.”
I’m not sure how many other children have had experiences like this, but I’d be willing to bet there are a few. I’ve heard some pretty great stories where parents would play tricks on their kids by laying their empty clothes out on their beds and then blowing trumpets so that the kids would run into the room only to find their parents gone. God bless you, parents.
By the way, twenty-seven years ago that boy was me. I was in that car with my younger sister when we both heard what sounded like the loudest trumpet sound ever and I was convinced Jesus had come back and I had missed the Rapture. It’s an event that God used to bring me to a place of deciding to follow Jesus. One might argue that were it not for the theology of the secret Pretribulational Rapture, I wouldn’t be a follower of Jesus. Of course we’ll never know, but I know of hundreds of people who can identify this eschatological issue as being a significant motivation toward their turning to Jesus.
Guess what? I think the theology behind the Pretribulational Rapture is wrong. Even though God used it as a means to draw me to Christ, I think it is based on a system of theology (Dispensationalism) that has significant flaws. In what follows I would like to draw your attention to 2 Thessalonians 1 as the place of discussion. Though there are other texts that present significant challenges to the Pretribulational Rapture (e.g., Matt. 24-25, 1 Thess. 5:1-10, 2 Thess. 2:1-12), this is one of the most significantly challenging texts for advocates of Dispensationalism to deal with.
The Church Shares in Persecution, Suffering, and Affliction
Perhaps one of the most remarkable statements I have ever heard from Christians is that God won’t have them suffer. Despite the fact that Peter’s first epistle challenges that type of nonsense, the concept is often repeated by Christians when they talk about eschatology. Their key verse, of course, is 1 Thess. 5:9 where Paul states that “God has not destined us for wrath.” I certainly agree with Paul there, but there’s a failure to assume that persecution, suffering, and affliction is the same thing as God’s wrath.
In 2 Thessalonians 1, we read the following:
“… we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring. This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering– since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you…” (2 Thess. 1:4-6)
Readers will acknowledge that Paul was aware that the church in Thessaloniki had experienced “persecutions” (diogmos) and “afflictions” (thlipsis, sometimes translated as “tribulation”) as well as had been “suffering” (pascho) for the sake of the kingdom of God. These intense experiences may have come through a variety of non-human sources, but they certainly were coming via people too, as v.6 reveals.
The church in Thessaloniki was suffering and Paul saw this as both encouragement toward their place in the kingdom as a chance to remind them that they would be relieved and that their persecutors would face judgement.
When Would Relief for the Thessalonians Come?
Intrinsic to the Pretribulational Rapture is the idea that the Church doesn’t go through the “Great Tribulation.” In the Dispensational chronology of events, the Rapture of the Church happens, then the Great Tribulation takes place and then Jesus returns and the armies of the enemies of God are destroyed.
Yet Paul makes it quite clear that relief for the Thessalonians and judgement for those afflicting them occur at the same event — when Jesus returns in power and glory. Paul writes:
“God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” (2 Thess. 1:6-8)
Vindication is in view here, as Wanamaker articulates well:
“In 2 Thes. 1 the enemies of the people of God are portrayed as the enemies of God as well, and their just recompense is said to be their affliction by God on the day of judgment. V. 9 gives a glimpse of what their affliction will be when it speaks of the destruction and eternal exclusion from the presence of God awaiting those not knowing God and those who refuse to obey the gospel. For those suffering for their faith in Christ the prospect of obtaining justice against their oppressors on the day of the Lord was probably intended to provide them with a sense of power over their foes. Their enemies might oppress them for the time being, but in the end the roles of the oppressed and their oppressors would be dramatically reversed.” (Charles A. Wanamaker, The Epistles to the Thessalonians: a Commentary on the Greek Text, 224)
This text presents a significant challenge to a Pretribulational position on the Rapture because Paul quite clearly understands that the Thessalonian followers of Jesus would not receive relief until Jesus came “with his might angels in flaming fire.” This event, known as the parousia (“coming”) is described in numerous passages in the NT, and they all have very similar language.
For example, when Jesus taught on eschatology in the Olivet Discourse, he said:
“Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.” (Matt. 24:29-31)
Notice that Jesus’ description of his return follows “the tribulation of those days” and includes angels. Furthermore, his description for his return is wrapped in apocalyptic language such as “with power and great glory.”
Rev. 19:11-21 presents a very similar vision. Jesus returns with eyes “like a flame of fire” (v.12) and he comes with “the armies of heaven” (v.14). When he returns, those who are opposed to Jesus are destroyed (v.15ff).
While we need to be careful not to force other biblical texts into the context of the texts we are exegeting, one cannot help but notice the similarity between what we read in other eschatological passages of Scripture and 2 Thessalonians 1. Jesus returns in power with flames surrounded by angels and relief and judgment occurs.
So this fall, go and enjoy the new Left Behind film starring Nicolas Cage. Don’t start a crusade and tell Christians who go to it that they have been deceived and are leading people to hell. Instead, use the movie as an opportunity to pick up the Bible and study the texts in context because when you do, you’ll likely help people discover that Left Behind is based more off of fantasy and sci-fi than a proper reading of Scripture.
Or so says the boy who heard the trumpet, missed the Rapture, and is now challenging that type of reading of the Bible.