Previous article in this series: August 2010, pg. 440.
Herman Hoeksema identified the battle of the nations, Gog and Magog, against the camp of the saints and the beloved city, in Revelation 20:7-9, with the battle of Armageddon, in Revelation 16:12-16. He explained the battle that results from Satan’s loosing for a little season as a physical war between two elements of the kingdom of Antichrist. The pagan nations of the East will make war against the center of Antichrist’s power, the nominally Christian nations of the West.
Removal of the Church
This explanation of the loosing of Satan and the resulting battle, recorded in Revelation 20, was closely related to Hoeksema’s strange teaching that before the return of Christ and the end of history Jesus Christ will raise all the dead elect, change the living saints into new creatures, and remove the entire church of the elect from earth into heaven. History will continue for some months, or even a few years, without any elect believers on earth.¹
Although this teaching sounds suspiciously like the rapture theory of dispensationalism (and this alone should have warned Hoeksema off from the teaching), Hoeksema’s doctrine of the removal of the church prior to Christ’s coming differs from dispensationalism’s rapture in important respects. Understandably, Hoeksema studiously avoiding referring to the removal of the church as a “rapture.”
Hoeksema’s teaching was not due to the doctrine of an essential difference between Israel and the church. As a covenant theologian, Hoeksema taught the oneness of Israel and the church.
Nor was the removal of the church in Hoeksema’s eschatology the escape of the church from the great tribulation of the last days. Hoeksema taught that the church will be persecuted by the kingdom of Antichrist. The removal of the church from the earth, in Hoeksema’s thinking, will follow the great tribulation, not precede it. The reason for the removal of the church, he contended, will be the church’s escape from the dreadful judgments that God will pour out on the antichristian kingdom towards the very end of history.
Hoeksema read Revelation 16 as teaching that God will devastate and break up the kingdom of the beast with extraordinary judgments, or plagues. These will fall exclusively on the citizens of the antichristian kingdom. He concluded that the church will have been removed from the earth when these judgments fall on the kingdom of the beast. Since the battle of Armageddon is one of the judgments with which God will afflict the antichristian kingdom and since Hoeksema identified the battle of Gog and Magog, in Revelation 20, with the battle of Armageddon, he taught that Gog and Magog will not attack the true church (for the true church will already have been removed from the earth), but the nominally Christian nations that constitute the seat of power of Antichrist.
Nevertheless, Hoeksema’s theory of the removal of the church from the earth before the coming of Christ necessarily shares one grave fault with premillennial dispensationalism. This is the teaching of more than one bodily resurrection at the end. According to Hoeksema, the bodies of the elect will be raised earlier than the bodies of the reprobate wicked. Some time, perhaps even a few years, will intervene between the two resurrections. Implied are two comings of Jesus Christ, one of a secret nature for the raising and taking to heaven of the elect and another, of a public nature, for the raising of the reprobate wicked.
This is erroneous, seriously erroneous. There will be one resurrection of the dead, righteous and unrighteous. Jesus Christ will accomplish this one resurrection at His one, public, visible, bodily coming. He Himself taught one resurrection of the dead in one and the same “hour” in John 5:28, 29: “The hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.” One resurrection by Christ at His one, bodily coming is confessional for Reformed Christians: “Our Lord Jesus Christ will come from heaven, corporally and visibly…and then…all the dead shall be raised out of the earth…. As for those who shall then be living, they shall not die as the others, but be changed in the twinkling of an eye.”²
The resurrection of the dead saints, accompanied by the transformation of the saints still living when Christ returns, will be public. The entire wicked world will, and must, see this exaltation of the people of God. The cause of Christ in His ridiculed and persecuted church must be vindicated publicly. There will be nothing secretive about the resurrection of the church. Hoeksema’s explanation of the removal of the church prior to the coming of Christ is forced to make the resurrection of the elect church a hidden, secret, unnoticed event. Commenting on Revelation 16:15, “Behold, I come as a thief,” Hoeksema wrote: “The Lord will come as a thief…to take His people away from the earth. He shall come and go, and no one shall have noticed that He shall have been. The nations shall continue to rage and to blaspheme the God of heaven; but the church of God shall be upon earth no more.”³
Saints Alive at the Coming
A removal of the church from the earth before Christ’s coming also conflicts with Scripture’s teaching that there will be elect believers on earth when the Lord returns. “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed” (I Cor. 15:51, 52). The presence of some saints on earth when Christ returns is the plain teaching of I Thessalonians 4:15-17: “We which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.”
The warnings of Mat thew 24:42ff., as well as other passages of Scripture, that the disciples of Christ must watch and be vigilant regarding the return of Christ imply that some will be alive on earth at His coming.Matthew 25:1-13 teaches that there will be wise virgins on earth when finally the cry goes out, “Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him.”
It is important that there be living saints when Christ returns. Although their numbers will have been decimated by tribulation and although their institutional form will have been destroyed by Antichrist, they will be the church of Christ, standing fast, courageously bearing witness against Antichrist and all his works and ways, confessing that God is God and that Jesus is the Christ, and watching expectantly for her Lord. The church will persevere to the end—not almost to the end, but to the very end. And her deliverance will not be a secretive thing, but the public appearance on the clouds of Jesus Christ with all the holy angels.
The Two Witnesses
Hoeksema was mistaken in finding the biblical basis of the removal of the church prior to the second coming of Christ in the account of the resurrection and ascension into heaven of the two witnesses of Revelation 11. “And after three days and an half the Spirit of life from God entered into them, and they stood upon their feet… and they ascended up to heaven in a cloud.” Noteworthy about the resurrection and ascension of the two witnesses is that this glorification will be public. The world of the ungodly will see it, and be terrified: “And great fear fell upon them which saw them… and their enemies beheld them” (Rev. 11:11, 12).
The two witnesses are the true church, as Hoeksema explained. The beast out of the abyss, the Antichrist, will make war against the true church. In this war, Antichrist will kill many of the members of the church, especially the ministers of the word. He will also destroy the instituted church.
Their resurrection and ascension up to heaven will be the public raising and calling up to heaven of the elect members of the church by Jesus Christ at His coming. All the world will see this vindication and glorification of the elect, believing, confessing, and holy church. The voice that will say, “Come up hither” (Rev. 11:12) will be that of Jesus Christ as He descends from heaven to raise the dead, conduct the final judgment, and make all things new.
History will not continue some months or years after the resurrection of the witnesses. But history will end with their resurrection. At that moment, the climactic moment of history, “the kingdoms of this world [will have become] the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever” (Rev. 11:15).
Battle of Gog and Magog
In light of all this, Hoeksema’s interpretation of the loosing of Satan in order to deceive the nations and unleash the battle of Gog and Magog against the camp of the saints and the beloved city must be challenged. The camp of the saints and the beloved city, in Revelation 20:9, do not symbolize nominal Christianity, that is, the nations that constitute the seat of power of Antichrist, but the true church of Christ in the world. The object of Satan’s hatred is not thesupposed camp of the saints and the purportedbeloved city, that is, in reality the camp of the unholy and the hated city, but the genuine camp of the saints and beloved city.
Satan was not bound so that he would not deceive half the ungodly world of nations to fight the other half (Rev. 20:3). But he was bound so that he could not, for a thousand years, accomplish the greatest deception imaginable of all the nations on earth. This deception is the befooling of the nations to suppose that the human race can form a peaceful, pleasurable, permanent world-kingdom without and in opposition to the triune God and Father of Jesus Christ. This deception is the lie of Satan that Man is god and that the Lawless One is his christ. This deception is the laughable stupidity that takes counsel together against Jehovah and His anointed saying, “Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us” (Ps. 2:2, 3). This deception is the consummate folly of thinking that mere human and Satanic force can destroy the kingdom of Christ, the church, and thus frustrate the purpose of God Almighty.
This deception Satan will accomplish, according to the sovereign will of the Lord Jesus, for a little season when the thousand years have reached the goal Christ intended for them. In the world-power of Antichrist, Satan will unite all the nations of the world against the Messianic kingdom, which is the true church. As the Magog of Ezekiel 38 and 39, under Prince Gog, attacked God’s covenant people, Israel, so the kingdom of the beast, under the personal Antichrist, will compass the camp of the saints about (Rev. 20:9). The true church will once again be regarded, and dealt with, as “enemy of the human race.”
The battle of Gog and Magog of Revelation 20 is not the battle of Armageddon of Revelation 16. Rather, the battle of Gog and Magog is the same as the war of the beast against the two witnesses of Revelation 11 and the war of the beast against the saints of Revelation 13.
Armageddon will be the physical battle in which the world-power of Antichrist will be broken up under the judgment of God. With the other vials of Revelation 16, Armageddon will be the full outpouring of the wrath of God in history upon the Satanic kingdom that has shed the blood of His people and slain His witnesses worldwide, and thus has filled the cup of its iniquity. The nations did not kiss the Son, as the witnesses exhorted, and, therefore, the Son will break the nations with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel (Psalm 2).
The concern of Hoeksema that the saints who remain on the earth after the great tribulation not share in the suffering of the dreadful judgments by which God will devastate the kingdom of Antichrist can be honored without removing these saints from the earth. Revelation 16does specify that the judgments of the seven vials will fall upon those that have the mark of the beast (v. 2) and upon the “seat of the beast” (v. 10). In addition,Revelation 16 represents these judgments as comparable to the last plagues upon Egypt, from which Israel was spared.
For the saints to escape the judgments that will fall on the citizens of the kingdom of Antichrist, it is not necessary that God remove them the earth. Just as He spared the Israelites in Goshen from the last plagues upon Egypt, by a wonderful providence, so can He yet once again spare His chosen saints on the earth when He pours out the seven vials upon the ungodly.
It hardly needs to be mentioned that this criticism of one aspect of Herman Hoeksema’s doctrine of the last things in his commentary on Revelation does not detract from the worth of this splendid volume. It is the best commentary on Revelation in English, by far. Perhaps it is the best commentary on Revelation in any language.
Hoeksema’s Behold, He Cometh! An Exposition of the Book of Revelation is the Protestant and Reformed commentary on the last book of the Bible that Luther and Calvin did not write.
I am indebted to it.
¹ See the preceding article in this series on the last things.
² Belgic Confession, Art. 37, in Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1966), 433, 434.
³ Herman Hoeksema, Behold, He Cometh!: An Exposition of the Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1969), 551. Ominously, this statement of a secret removal of the saints by their bodily resurrection also suggests a secretive coming of Christ towards the end, in addition to and in contrast with His public, visible coming at the end. This may not be countenanced.