The Two Aspects of Jesus’ Coming

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In this post, I will be addressing eschatology from the doctrinal context of two stages of Christ’s second coming: rapture of the saints and the return of Christ to earth.

There are three major eschatological positions adhered to by various Christian denominations which determine what details they believe about the second coming of Jesus Christ. These are:

Amillennialism

This is the prevalent eschatology among Lutherans, Anglicans, Calvinists, Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, the Amish and some Messianic Jews. It posits that there will not be a literal thousand-year reign of Christ on earth. They affirm that we are currently in the 1000 years mentioned in Revelation 20.

Amillennialists do not deny the literal return of Christ, but they believe the kingdom of God is the present church age; Satan is currently bound and there would be no future intervening millennium before the new earth.

To them, the second coming of Christ is a single event, thus it cannot be termed “imminent” (i.e. Christ can come at any moment). [1]

Postmillennialism

Postmillennialism was a dominant theological belief among American Protestants who promoted reform movements in the 19th and 20th century such as abolitionism and reconstructionism.

It may be defined as “that view of the last things which holds that the Kingdom of God is now being extended in the world through the preaching of the Gospel and the saving work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of individuals, that the world would eventually be Christianized, and that the return of Christ is to occur at the close of a long period of righteousness and peace commonly called the ‘Millennium.’ ” [2]

Premillennialism

This means that Christ will return to establish His earthly reign of one thousand years. There are, however, two distinct forms of premillennialism, one known as “historic” premillennialism (or nondispensational premillennialism), while the other is known as dispensational premillennialism. [3]

It’s in premillennialism that you have pretribulationism. This is the doctrine that the church will escape the great tribulation through the rapture.

Many non-pretribulationists (amillennialists, postmillennialists and posttribulationists) totally reject the idea of the rapture of believers. This point of difference has been a bone of contention between many a Christian.

It has gotten so bad that Christians who are premillennial or pretribulationists are unfairly labelled as vile heretics and often ostracized. I have personally been blocked – not merely removed – from several Christian Facebook groups on this basis. Yet, most of these group admins would readily accept non-Christians as members.

I must also add that I’ve observed this sort of “circle the bunkers” approach to be quite prevalent among American Christians. Most groups managed by Christians from other continents seem to be more tolerable of diverging eschatological details.

But I believe what should be the unifying factor is the belief in the return of Christ. John Feinberg has demonstrated that one must first examine the basic Bible passages about the rapture and the return of Christ and then look at secondary issues in the light of the primary passages. [4]

Distinguishing Carefully

There are certain similarities between the rapture passages and the second coming passages, since they both refer to future events relating to our Lord’s return. But similarity does not mean they are referring to the same event.

There are enough substantial differences between the two aspects of Christ’s coming so as to render them as two separate and distinct events.

The distinction between these two phases of the second coming is substantiated by the contrast between those passages that refer to our Lord’s coming for His church and those referring to His coming to judge the unbelieving world.

Pretribulationists merely need to prove that the dissimilarities between rapture passages and the return passages are significant enough to indicate that they are separate events.

Thomas Ice provided the following list to identify those distinctions.

Rapture Passages:

John 14:1-3, Romans 8:19, 1 Cor. 1:7-8; 15:51-53; 16:22, Phil. 3:20-21, Col. 3:4, 1 Thess. 1:10; 2:19, 4:13-18; 5:9, 5:23; 2 Thess. 2:1, 1 Tim. 6:14; 2 Tim. 4:1, Titus 2:13, Hebrews 9:28, James 5:7-9, 1 Peter 1:7, 13, 1 John 2:28-3:2, Revelation 3:10.

Second Coming Passages:

Daniel 2:44-45, 7:9-14, 12:1-3, Zech. 14:1-15, Matt. 13:41, 24:15-31, 26:64, Mark 13:14-27; 14:62, Luke 21:25-28; Acts 1:9-11, 3:19-21, 1 Thess. 3:13, 2 Thess. 1:6-10, 2:8, 2 Peter 3:1-14, Jude 14-15, Revelation 1:7, 19:11-20:6, 22:.7, 12.

Ice comments that the rapture is characterized in the New Testament as a “translation coming,” in which Christ comes for His church, taking her to His Father’s house. Here He claims her as His bride and the marriage supper of the Lamb begins.

Whatever view one holds in regard to our Lord’s return, one thing is clear in prophetic Scripture. The marriage occurs in heaven (Rev. 19:7-9) before the triumphal return of Christ with His redeemed church at His side (Rev. 19:11-16). [5]

The return of Christ is a series of events fulfilling all end-time prophecies. These include predictions of His coming for His church and His coming with His church.

Pretribulationists divide the return of Christ in two main phases: the rapture of the church and the second coming of Christ.

In the first aspect, our Lord comes to take His own (the living and the dead) to be with Him. In the second aspect, He returns with His resurrected and raptured saints to win the battle of Armageddon and to establish His kingdom on earth (Revelation 5:10, “and we shall reign on the earth”).

Pretribulationists place the seven-year tribulation period between the rapture and the return. This allows for the proper fulfillment of Daniel’s “seventieth week,” and it clearly separates the rapture from the return.

It is vital to substantiate the adequate dissimilarities between the events of the rapture and events associated with the return.

1. At the rapture, Christ comes FOR His own (e.g John 14:3) while at His return, He comes WITH his own

2. At rapture, He comes in the air (1 Thess. 4:17). At His return, He comes to the earth (Zech. 14:4)

3. At rapture, there is removal of believers (1 Thess. 4:17). At His return, Christ is manifested (Mal. 4:2)

4. At the rapture, ONLY His own see Him (1 Thess. 4:13-18). At His return EVERY EYE shall see Him (Rev. 1:7)

5. After rapture, the Great Tribulation begins (2 Thess. 1:6-9). After His return, the Millennial Kingdom begins (Rev. 20:1-7)

6. At the rapture, the saved are delivered from wrath (1 Thess 1:10). At His return, the unsaved experience the wrath of God (Rev. 6:12-17).

7. No signs precede the rapture (1 Thess. 5:1-3) whereas signs precede the second coming (Luke 21:11, 15)

8. The focus of the rapture is on the Lord and church (1 Thess. 4:13-18). The focus of His return is on Israel and the Kingdom (Matt. 24:14)

9. After rapture, the world is deceived (2 Thess. 2:3-12). At His return, Satan is bound (Rev. 20:1-2)

The church’s hope is the rapture. She awaits the Savior who is coming for His bride. The church may endure persecution, trouble, and difficulty in this present time. But she is not the object of divine wrath.

The church does not await destruction as the world does. Rather, she awaits the coming of her Lord and King. Peter explains that the present world is “reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men” (2 Pet. 3:7).

The Bible pictures the church as the wife of the Lamb (Rev. 19:7-9). She is not the object of the wrath of the Lamb. Jesus will not beat her up and then marry her! Or marry her, then beat her up! He may discipline her in love. But His ultimate purpose is to present her to the Father as His perfect bride. [6]

The biblical terms used to express rapture are “caught up” (Greek: harpazō) and “gathered together” (Great: episunagōgēs). Greek scholars observe that harpazō is the same verb used of Paul (“whether it was in the body or out of the body,” 2 Cor. 12:2-4 NOV); Philip (the Spirit… suddenly took Philip away,” Acts 8:39 NIV); and the man child (“snatched up to God”). This term was also used by Christ in John 10:28-29 where He promised that no one can “snatch” His own out of His hand. [7]

Therefore, the rapture is the time when Christ will “snatch” His people out of the earth and we will be “gathered together” with the Lord (2 Thess. 2:1). The basic meaning is to “assemble together.” The rapture church is pictured as the great “assembly” in the sky. As Milligan explains it:

“The word goes back to the saying of the Lord I Mark 13:27 (“gather His elect”), and is found elsewhere in the New Testament only in Hebrews 10:25, where it is applied to the ordinary religious assembling of believers as an anticipation of tge great assembling at the Lord’s coming.” [8]

The rapture (or “translation”) of the church is often paralleled to the “raptures” of Enoch (Genesis 5:24) and Elijah (2 Kings 2:12). In each case, the individual disappeared or was caught up into heaven. At His ascension, our Lord Himself was “taken up” into heaven (Acts 1:9).

Indeed, there is a rapture and there is the second coming of Christ and a millennial reign of Christ on earth. There’s no justification for spiritualizing Revelation 20 any more than Genesis 1 or John 20.

Notes

[1] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1941, pp. 696-703.

[2] Loraine Boettner, The Millennium, Reformed Press, 1966, p. 14.

[3] Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology, Moody Press, Chicago, 2008, p. 409.

[4] John Feinberg, “Arguing for the Rapture,” in Pre-Trib Answers to Post-Trib Questions (August-September 1994, p. 2.

[5] Thomas Ice, “Why the Rapture and Second Coming are Distinct Events,” in Pre-Trib Answers to Post-Trib Questions, pp. 2-3.

[6] Earth’s Final Hour, Ed Hindson, Evangel Publication, 1999, pp. 112-116.

[7] C. F. Hogg and W. E. Vine, The Epistles to the Thessalonians, London: Exeter Press, 1929, p. 144.

[8] George Milligan, St. Paul’s Epistles to the Thessalonians, NY: Revell, 1908, vol. 2, p. 96.

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