A Question on the
NCW 72, July-September 2001
Q. Hello! I was impressed by your website and so I'm hoping you could provide a rational explanation to a question that poses a contradictory position held by Post-Trib Rapture adherents with regard to 2 Thess. 2:1-2.
[I'm relying upon a Post-Trib understanding that the Rapture will immediately precede the Day of the Lord at the culmination of the Battle of Armageddon and the end of the seven year Tribulation Period.]
Question: Why would the Thessalonian believers have been "shaken in mind or be troubled" as the Day of the Lord having come when they knew perfectly well from 1 Thess. 4:13-17, that they would be accompanying Christ to earth on that very "day"? There would be no reason for them to behave with such anxiety according to Post-Trib thinking because all Christians will be with Christ before the moment the Day of the Lord takes place. The Apostle Paul knew they were not ignorant of this!
And so this is where I'm running into trouble! Please enlighten me. Thanks!
A. The way I read 1 Thes.4:13ff, Paul is talking to believers who are struggling with life after death - of "those who fall asleep" (v.13, NIV), i.e. die - he does not want these new converts (who have just turned from paganism) "to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope" (ibid.). He does not want them to be "ignorant" (from the Gk. meaning "agnostic" or "unbelieving") about life after death.
This sets the tone. We are not dealing with scriptorians such as you or I but about people who have recently come to faith and are still struggling with questions of the resurrection. The preceding verses of Ch.4 show us that they are still struggling with their former sexually immoral pagan lifestyle.
There is a tendency on our part to look back at past situations through 21st century Western Christian eyes. So let us just allow the text to speak for itself.
The Thessalonians are worried about life-after-death ... will it really happen? They are still a bit "agnostic". Death is a daily reality and in their old pagan mind-frame they had little or no hope of an afterlife. The apostle says: "Don't worry like the pagans you were - now you have the hope of the resurrection". So don't grieve (NIV), don't be sad (JNT). They had NO IDEA about a "rapture" until Paul told them about it in the verses that proceeded.
He continues: "We believe that Jesus died and rose again" (v.14, NIV), which is the chief message "and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in Him" (ibid.). In other words, quit worrying - when Christ returns, He will bring the dead back with Him fully alive! They can relax - this is the hope they have.
"According to the Lord's own word" (v.15a, NIV) ... this is not something we know about from the Gospels and was either something Christ had said and was passed on orally, or it was something revealed to Paul which he had passed on. What follows is not found anywhere else in the Bible as it has been transmitted to us.
He continues, saying, that those believers who survive the tribulation and the Lord's coming "will not precede those who have fallen asleep" (v.15b, NIV). Now why did Paul say this? What was bothering the Thessalonians? They were worried that those amongst them who had already died would some how "miss out" when Christ returned, and Paul is assuring then that when the Lord comes back to collect the remnant survivors it will be together with all the past believers who are resurrected. No one is going to be left behind! So they can relax - this event will involve everyone who has ever believed, including the dead. No one need fear.
My must try to put ourselves into the Thessalonian mind-frame. Try to imagine you were recently a pagan worshipping at the shrine of Diana or Zeus. Your mind has been filled with pagan mumbo-jumbo since you were capable of learning. You are full of superstition and you are especially full of dread about the afterlife. You have no knowledge of the resurrection. You are converted to Christ and you now have hope of a resurrection and eternal life. But you are still occasionally haunted by your past beliefs. It takes time to reorientate someone from a totally different way of life, being, thinking, feeling, etc.. These new believers are infants in the faith. All they want to be sure about is that loved ones who have died aren't going to be left out when Christ returns! And this is the concern that Paul addresses here.
Then the apostle proceeds to explain how it will happen: Christ will come down from heaven (in the same way He ascended into it when He left the world after His resurrection) after a trumpet blast is heard and the archangel speaks the word. The dead in Christ will arise first (v.16).
The dead are all resurrected. Now we are told that the survivors of the tribulation will be caught up into the air to meet Christ and the resurrected saints - "And so we will be with the Lord for ever" (v.17, NIV). "Therefore encourage each other with these words" (v.18, NIV) - don't be worried about your deceased loved ones - they'll be there!
That is all Paul says. We cannot deduce from this passage where the saints will be after they have met together in the sky because we aren't told. All the Thessalonians are told is that once they are the resurrected 'dead' have met together, they will never be separated from Christ again. We are not told whether they will return to the earth's surface again or whether they will be transported to another word. And Paul actually isn't concerned about that - his sole purpose is to still their fears about believers being left out.
What happens after the surviving remnant meets up with Christ and the resurrected in the air must be determined from the corpus of other scriptures dealing with the Millennium. Here we must turn to the numerous prophecies in the Old Testament and to the continuing story in the Book of Revelation. And what do we find from the latter? That the "New Jerusalem", which is the Bride of Christ, comes down out of heaven from the presence of God (Rev.3:12; 21:2). There is no talk of the New Jerusalem going up again - back to heaven. The sole direction of its movement is down - it is earthbound.
Were this all the Bible said about the Millennium we might well be left to speculate further. But the consistent thrust of the Old Testament is that the long awaited messianic reign of peace is to be an earthly paradise. You will search in vain in the OT for even the slightest hint that the paradise of mankind is to be in some far-off realm.
Indeed, the New Testament tells us that not only is the old earth to be replaced with a new one, but that the old heaven is to be replaced with a new one also (Rev.21:1; 2 Pet.3:13; cp. Is.65:17; 66:22). According to Peter, this new earth and new heaven is a singular "home of righteousness". Indeed, as you read the Book of Revelation, you will see that the common theme is that the distinction between the two is removed, the two uniting together just as the spirit and body unite inseparably in the resurrection. The temporary separation caused by sin is removed, the temporary dwelling place of the disembodied spirits of the dead is no longer needed, since they are now all resurrected. This system of dual worlds (spirit and earthly) ends for the unrighteous as well, for we are told that the damned are resurrected as well - hell is a "resurrected" state as well.
Thus all the scriptures about heaven dovetail together. The remnant meet Christ and the resurrected "halfway" and are never separated again. In what is both a literal transaction as well as an allegory, we are being shown the process of restoration of the world before it fell. God and Adam lived together in the Garden of Eden - it was one world - and it was a physical world. The earthly survivors rise halfway "up" to meet the resurrected believers halfway "down" - the two worlds reunite, and everything is made anew.
By sticking to what the Bible actually says, we can lop off all the fantastic speculations about being whisked away to other planets and the like. We have Seventh Day Adventists telling us that the earth is to be left utterly barren and that everyone will be in heaven (like the majority of evangelicals), and the Jehovah's Witesses who say that the 144,000 will be in heaven as disembodied spirit beings whilst the rest are on earth. There are dozens of theories about the post-tribulation world(s). Had 1 Thes.4 being saying what most evangelicals claim it says, then it is odd that such is entirely omitted in the book of end things, the Book of Revelation. But John saw nothing of what so many Christians claim will happen.
We know where the rapture doctrine originated historically. It was neither an early Christian teaching and indeed is barely two centuries old. It originated amongst Catholics and spiritualists. Once we read the scriptures through the eyes of those who were inspired, and understand those who were being addressed, it becomes a lot simpler. If you read ch.5 of 1 Thessalonians (vv.1-11) you will see the same theme being continued. Paul spends another half chapter reassuring these former pagans that they have nothing to fear about death. Don't worry, he says, God has everything in hand. All you have to do is live a life of faith, self-control and alertness. "He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with Him" (v.10, NIV). Don't be afraid of being separated from your loved ones who have died!
That, I would suggest, is what they were "shaken in mind" and "troubled" about - being separated from loved ones when Christ returns. They aren't concerned about where they are going to be reunited, only that they are. And Paul takes us no further than the point of reunion in the air because what follows is not relevant to his discourse.
Now, most of us don't like being "left in the air" - we want answers. Since we are to have our minds fixed on the heavenly realms it is, I suppose, of some interest to know where it is. Be that as it may be, we must be content with that Paul says and not read any more into his words. To answer our question, we must go to Isaiah, John and others.
As for 2 Thessalonians 2:1-2, all Paul is doing here is refuting an early Preterist heresy which claimed - as it still does today - that Christ had/has already returned. Obviously, if this had happened, it would have rendered Paul's teachings in 1 Thessalonians 4 meaningless, since no meeting in the air had yet taken place. He elaborates further by saying that before the second coming there would be a universal apostasy from the faith and a revealing of the "man of lawlessness" (2 Thes.2:3), the Antichrist. Since this had not happened at the time of writing the letter, the Thessalonians were to totally disregard the early preterists. The Jehovah's Witnesses are examples of modern-day Preterists, claiming that Christ returned invisibly in 1914 when their earlier predictions of a visible return failed. Such speculation, which we are warned not to indulge in, only creates confusion.
Paul's second letter merely confirms what I remarked about above, namely, that the Thessalonians were still a restless, unsettled fellowship of former pagans (see 2 Thes. 3:11-13). They were young in the faith, easily disturbed by false doctrine. Satan played on their weakness - their concern about deceased loved ones - by getting false teachers to stir them up and destabilise their hope with Preterist thinking.
We, in our turn, must labour to counter false doctrines in the Body and to point believers to the simple truths of Scripture. Above all, we must fight against escapist doctrines which breed spiritual laziness (2 Thes.3:11), apathy, and indifference. We must, instead, "never tire of doing what is right" (v.13).
To that end, we must preach the whole Word undiluted and integrated as it is, and urge all to prepare themselves for the times ahead. It won't be easy.
This page was created on 9 March 2003
Last updated on 9 March 2003
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