What dispensationalists are especially known for is their bizarre teaching that the church on this earth is going to be raptured into heaven right before the tribulation. At any moment, they say, this could happen. There are no signs that must be seen first. It might be tomorrow. It might be today. A multitude of people are mysteriously going to vanish from this earth. Vehicles on the road will suddenly be unmanned. There will be widespread chaos. And then the period known as the Great Tribulation is going to begin.
Where did they come up with such an idea? How do they attempt to prove this? And why do they desire to teach such a thing? We turn now to consider this strange teaching and its significance for the whole dispensational system of thought.
The term rapture comes from the Latin translation of the Greek word translated “caught up” in I Thessalonians 4:17 (KJV): “Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.” The rapture is that moment when the believers on earth will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air.
This verse, of course, clearly states that there will be such a moment. The question, however, has to do withwhen this will take place. Dispensationalists say this event will take place before the Great Tribulation, and seven years or more prior to the second coming of Christ. Furthermore, they say this event could take place at any moment, with no signs needing to take place before it occurs. It is this view of an imminent, pretribulation rapture that is uniquely characteristic of Dispensationalism.
There are many errors associated with the pretribulation rapture idea, but central among them is the false distinction Dispensationalists make between Israel and the church. Dispensationalists embrace a carnal interpretation of the promises to Israel found in the Old Testament, and they say these promises will not be fulfilled until the church gets out of the way. God’s second people (viz., the church), they say, must be removed from the scene. Only then will God return to His first people (viz., the earthly nation of Israel).
Dispensationalists openly admit that their view of a pretribulation rapture is inseparably connected to their Israel-church distinction:
The church and Israel are two distinct groups with whom God has a divine plan. The church is a mystery, unrevealed in the Old Testament. This present mystery age intervenes within the program of God for Israel because of Israel’s rejection of the Messiah at His first advent. This mystery program must be completed before God can resume His program with Israel and bring it to completion.¹
So, in their view, God has two peoples, and He has a different “program” for each one. The first program is for Israel, and this program was interrupted when the Jews rejected Christ. Then God started a second program, which involves the gathering of the church out of all the nations. This second program, they say, must come to an end before God will resume His first program. The rapture, then, is that specific moment when the second program (for the church) comes to an end, so that God may resume His first program (for Israel).
The tribulation, in their view, is something that belongs to God’s program for Israel. And if it belongs to God’s program for Israel, then the church program must end before the tribulation begins.
Dispensationalists make use of their Israel-church distinction to get around one of the main verses used to refute the idea of a pretribulation rapture. I refer now to Matthew 24:29-31, which reads: “Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light…. And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.” This passage states explicitly that elect believers will be gathered together after the tribulation. This, of course, directly contradicts the dispensational view of a pretribulation rapture. In an effort to escape the teaching of this passage, Dispensationalists make use of their distinction between two groups of elect saints, and argue that this passage refers to the elect Israelites, not the elect that constitute the church.
In fact, they will acknowledge that if God has only one people, then this verse certainly does refute their position:
Obviously if the word church includes saints of all ages and saints are mentioned in the tribulation time, it is futile to debate the question of pretribulationism.²
In other words, Walvoord here is admitting that this passage in Matthew would refute the notion of a pretribulation rapture, if the church includes saints of all ages.
Thus we see that a proper understanding of the truth that the church does indeed include saints of all ages is enough to refute this false teaching concerning a pretribulation rapture. This is yet another example of how the truths concerning ecclesiology and those concerning eschatology are inseparably related.
Even though the truth that there is only one people of God is sufficient to refute the pretribulation rapture idea, it is worthwhile to consider some of the main arguments Dispensationalists use to try to prove their position. Along the way it will be worth noting how these different arguments are often very clearly related to their erroneous Israel-church distinction.
In an effort to make their position appear to be well grounded in Scripture, Dispensationalists list a whole host of reasons why the rapture must take place before the tribulation. Although it would be quite tedious to consider all of them, it would certainly be worthwhile and beneficial to consider some of the main ones.
One of their chief arguments is that Scripture speaks of a future tribulation that Israel must go through. They frequently cite Jeremiah 30:7-9, which speaks of the tribulation as a time of Jacob’s trouble: “Alas! for that day is great, so that none is like it: it is even the time of Jacob’s trouble; but he shall be saved out of it. For it shall come to pass in that day, saith the Lord of hosts, that I will break his yoke from off thy neck, and will burst thy bonds, and strangers shall no more serve themselves of him: But they shall serve the Lord their God, and David their king, whom I will raise up unto them.” This passage, they say, refers to a tribulation that Israel—not the church—must go through. This prophecy, they maintain, has not yet been fulfilled, seeing as David has not yet been raised from the dead. So, they argue, it must refer to a future time of trouble for Israel:
The timing of this prophecy is of great significance because it was linked to the resurrection of “David their king whom I will raise up to them” (v. 9). David’s resurrection will be connected with the second coming of Christ and will be part of the resurrection of Old Testament saints which will also occur at the time of the Second Coming (cf.
). This prophecy has never been fulfilled and was part of the revelation contained in many Old Testament passages concerning the restoration of Israel to their land. This prophecy supports the chronology of pretribulationists that Israel must undergo an unprecedented time of trouble before the Second Advent….³
There are a number of problems with this interpretation. First of all, when the passage speaks of God raising up David, it is referring to the resurrection of Christ. David was dead when Jeremiah wrote this passage. Dispensationalists, holding to their “literal” method of interpreting Scripture, argue that this passage teaches that David will be raised from the dead and will once again rule over God’s people in the millennium.
The Scriptures elsewhere, however, refer to David reigning over God’s people forever. The reign is not to be limited to a thousand years:
And David my servant shall be king over them; and they all shall have one shepherd: they shall also walk in my judgments, and observe my statutes, and do them. And they shall dwell in the land that I have given unto Jacob my servant, wherein your fathers have dwelt; and they shall dwell therein, even they, and their children, and their children’s children for ever: and my servant David shall be their prince for ever,
Note the explanation dispensationalist Walvoord gives of this passage, and the maneuver he uses to try to escape its clear teaching:
The promise that David would be her prince forever must be interpreted as being fulfilled in the 1,000-year reign. Actually, the word “forever” is a translation of an expression “to the ages” which may be interpreted as forever or until eternity begins.4
The Hebrew expression that he says means “to the ages” means literally “to hidden time” and refers to a length of time the beginning or end of which is not defined. It is the normal Hebrew way to refer to forever. Anyone who does a search on this expression will find a multitude of places where it is translated forever, as in the statement that Jehovah’s mercy endureth “forever” (Ps. 138:8), and that God will reign forever (Ps. 146:10). Clearly, Jehovah’s reign and mercy will continue for more than a thousand years.
So when Scripture speaks here of David reigning forever, it is speaking of Christ reigning forever. David was a type of Christ. The name “David” means “Beloved One,” and Christ is the “Beloved One” to whom David pointed. David who slew Goliath will, of course, be resurrected on the last day and will reign with Christ forever. But it is Christ specifically that is referred to in these passages as reigning over God’s people forever.
But what is meant by the “time of Jacob’s trouble”? To what does this refer, and when will this take place? Is there a sense in which this prophecy has already been fulfilled? And is the final fulfillment of this still future? We will begin with this, Lord willing, next time.
1 J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come: A Study in Biblical Eschatology (1958; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Dunham Publishing Co., 1966), 193.
2 John F. Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1959), 252.
3 John F. Walvoord, Every Prophecy of the Bible, (Colorado Springs, CO: Chariot Victor Publishing, 1999), 138.
4 Ibid., 187