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What Shall We Believe? by Aurelia T. Fule


Aurelia Takacs Fule is a former staff member of the Program Agency of the United Presbyterian Church and later Associate for Faith and Order in the Theology and Worship Ministry Unity of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). She is retired and living in Santa Fe, N.M. What Shall We Believe? was copyrighted by Aurelia T. Fule in 1987 and is used by permission. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy.


V. The Rapture


The Rapture is "the next great event on the horizon of time (perhaps the greatest in all of history)," says Jimmy Swaggart. The word is not found in the Scriptures. The whole expectation is built on a particular reading of I Thessalonians 4:13-18. In verse 17 believers alive at the time of Christ’s coming "shall be caught up together with them," that is, with the dead who are raised "in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air." All rapturists believe this is a kind of private visit of Christ, and not the Second Coming. If one argues that Scripture knows about only one Second Coming at the close of the age and that I Thessalonians 4:17 does not mean what Rapture believers say it does, one is assured that this is not the only verse to teach the Rapture.

Tim La Haye refers to Titus 2:13, ". . . awaiting our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ." "Our blessed hope," he says, "is a reference to the Rapture of the church -- the cause for great rejoicing..." The second part of the sentence, "the appearing ‘is the Second Coming (Tim La Haye, The Beginning of the End, Living Books, Tyndale House Publishers, 1984, p. 24). But how would anyone know this? It surely is not in the biblical text. One piece of advice to the reader who has come this far: relax, read what follows with some thought of what Hollywood could do with the material!

The Rapture, according to most of its proponents, has five elements indicated in I Thessalonians 4: 1)The return of Christ; 2) Resurrection of believers; 3) Rapture of living believers -- besides verse 17 a number of unlikely texts are referred to (I Cor. 15:51-52, Job 19:25, Isa. 26:19, Dan. 12:2, John 5:26-29); 4) Reunion with loved ones, with the Lord, and being taken to heaven (Job 14:1-3); 5) Reassurance, comfort, encouragement The debate among believers in the Rapture is about the time, when it will take place. In the definitions we noted that there are pre-, mid- and post- tribulationist positions; let us begin with the last one

The post-tribulationist Rapture is not on the horizon yet; a lot of things will take place first. Here is the sequence. Try to visualize it as you read.

Israel will sign a pact with the leader of the revived Roman Empire, i.e., the European Economic Community (Dan. 9:25-27), "the man of sin." This will signal the outbreak of the Great Tribulation, a period of horrifying events. Scofield refers to Revelation 7:14, which uses the word tribulation (and Rev.11—18, Rev. 3:10, Jer. 30:7). Daniel, Matthew 24, I&ll Thessalonians also come in for good measure. his is a time of the reign of the "beast out of the sea" (Rev. 13:1) and the work of the devil "in great wrath" (Rev. 12:12). During this period 144,000 persons will be kept safe (Rev. 7:4), though they will not be redeemed until the Second Coming. According to some, they are a "symbolic representation of the church," but others believe them to be Jews, as indeed the text suggests, 12,000 for each of the 12 tribes.

The hours of the tribulation will end with the Day of the Lord, the final destruction of all Gentile world-power. The true church now will experience the promise of Revelation 3:10: "I will keep you from the hour of trial which is coming on the whole world." What they are to be kept from is Armageddon, which may be very quick or -- with recently inflated imagination -- quite long. In Hal Lindsey’s There’s a New World Coming, in its updated edition, 12 pages are written on the different phases and battle plans of Armageddon, a rather long war.

Then comes the Rapture and Second Coming, one event for post-tribulationists. The raptured are taken up just for a moment and at once return to earth with the descent of Christ. At this point 144,000 will be saved, if they are Jews. Those who believe they represent the church have another scenario.

The Millennium starts at this point, when Christ will reign on earth for a thousand years. Two sets of people are highlighted to enter the millennial kingdom: the 144,000, probably Jews, and the true church "raptured" for a moment and returned with Christ. The difference that the Rapture seems to have made is that these people return with the Lord in a moment with changed, resurrection bodies. The 144,000, on the other hand, are still in their natural bodies, hence they will be the parents of the millennial population. Are you reminded of medieval theologians arguing about how many angels can dance on the tip of a pin?

But this is not yet the end, only a thousand years. What follows is not very different from the view we will look at next. So we will rejoin this narrative at that point. The scenario we followed is largely the one outlined by Charles C. Ryrie, considered an expert in this field (What You Should Know About the Rapture. Chicago: Moody Press, 1981). Pat Robertson seems to hold this position.

The Tribulation is one of the dividing lines among rapturists. Post-tribulationists, as we saw, believe the Rapture will take place at the end of the seven-year Tribulation, mid-tribulationists that it will be in the middle and pre-tribulationists that rescue is sure at the start.

The pre-tribulatlonist stand is far more popular, for obvious reasons. Jerry Falwell and Jimmy Swaggart are pre-tribulational pre-millennialists. The program we will look at is Jimmy Swaggart’s The Future of Planet Earth (Baton Rouge: Jimmy Swaggart Ministries, 1984).

Pre-tribulationists believe that the next great event is the Rapture. Swaggart’s narrative speaks of this as the "first resurrection," "when every child of God who has ever lived -- all the way from Adam ..". will be changed in the "twinkling of an eye." This is generous and unusual. Others speak of living believers only, perhaps because the Tribulation does not bother the dead. But in Swaggart’s view: "The soul and the spirit of every Christian who has ever lived will then be reunited with their deceased bodies," the latter being changed, of course." What better way to get the attention of mankind than to instantly withdraw millions of people from the face of the earth?" Indeed, not to mention the resurrection of the dead. So everyone will know that the last days are very near. The major benefit of this position is that one can calmly contemplate the horrors, Armageddon, nuclear war and the rest, because the person propagating these views believes he (I have not found a single woman preacher or writer in this group) will not need to endure any of it -- only others will.

The Great Tribulation follows for seven years (Matt. 24:21). During its first half the Antichrist comes on the scene. The second half will be still worse, "so horrifying that the minds of men will scarcely comprehend." The reasons are: to punish the world for its sin, and to bring Israel, "the primary subject of the Tribulation," to Christ. After accepting a false Messiah who will desecrate the holy Temple -- by then rebuilt in Jerusalem -- many of the Jews will flee Jerusalem and go to Petra. They "would be completely annihilated" but for "the direct intervention of God." This poor remnant will return to Jerusalem just at the wrong time.

Armageddon is to be fought now, and the remnant "will cry as they never have before for the Messiah to return."

The Second Coming of Christ (Rev. 19:11-16) with his saints then takes place -- with Christ coming on the Mount of Olives (Zech. 14:4). "The Jews will then accept the Lord Jesus Christ (Zech. 12:7-10)." If you are checking references you will note that the last one is very uncertain.

At this point we join the post-tribulation timetable and consider predictions for both streams, still following Swaggart’s outline.

The Millennium begins (Rev. 20:1-3). "It is the literal and tangible kingdom of Jesus Christ reigning on earth from the city of Jerusalem (Zech. 14:16)." Satan will be in the bottomless pit; swords will be made into plowshares; war, poverty, pain, sickness will be no more. The reign of Christ will be "infinite prosperity, peace, glory, and power." Swaggart says that during this time "death will no longer be the fearful pall culminating the life of every man." In all my reading I could not pin down anyone more than that. Will people die in the thousand-year reign? There will be birth, that is clear, but will they all stay alive, or only the "fear of death" be overcome? Sorry, I cannot tell.

Then Satan is loosed for a season (Rev. 20:3, 7-9) at the end of the thousand years. We discover that the perfect kingdom was not all perfect. Those who "were forced to obey the laws, but in their hearts did not desire righteousness" will join Satan who "must be loosed a little season" (Rev.20:3). Satan starts a new battle against Christ in Jerusalem. Note verses 7-9 in Revelation 20. Gog and Magog are with Satan in this last battle; later we will meet them elsewhere. The battle ends with God’s intervention, and Satan ends as well (Rev. 20:10).

The last judgment, or the Great White Throne Judgment, follows in everybody’s script (Rev. 20:11-14). This takes place, says Swaggart, in heaven. Those who lived without God, the "unsaved," will be judged according to the lives they lived. No one will be pardoned, or receive a lesser penalty -- "all will be thrown into the lake of fire," says Swaggart, not Revelation. Even he cannot avoid the question: if everyone receives the same punishment, why hold a judgment? The "immaculate judgment of God" requires this, he says, so that no one could accuse God of being unfair.

Some people, probably most people, believe that one day we will all have to give account for our life. Utterly wrong, says Swaggart. "No Christian will be judged, as our (Christians’) sins have already been blotted out by the precious blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. Only the unsaved will be at the Great White Throne Judgment ... not one single child of God will be there." That’s great. No need to fear atomic war, ecological disaster, or even God. Just stay close to the saints around Swaggart, or FaIwell, or others who share the same views. In the medieval church, people purchased indulgences to shorten their stay in purgatory. Is this not a new and more malignant form of indulgence? Some popes might have thought they had influence over punishment in purgatory, but none would have claimed to change God’s judgment. Yet these pre- millennialists claim a full and perfect guarantee for this life and all eternity, based not on the love of God alone, but on the damnation of many. The New Heaven and the New Earth (Rev. 21:1-5) will follow the last judgment. There is considerable difference on this point. Hal Lindsey and others point to II Peter 3:7,10, "... heavens will pass away ... the elements will be disintegrated with fire, and the earth ... will be burned up." Lindsey titles this section "The Quadrillion Megaton Explosion." During the Millennium the Holy City, New Jerusalem, will be suspended above the earth, muses Lindsey, and temporarily withdrawn during the destruction of the earth "In any case, the New J [for Jerusalem] will be the center of the universe" (There’s a New World Coming, p. 272). Yes and no, says Swaggart.

Though we read of "a new heaven and a new earth," for Swaggart this does not mean the present earth will be done away with. But dramatic changes are indicated. Here it is valuable to stop and see how Swaggart handles Scripture. "The Greek word is parerchomai. This means to pass from one condition to another." Swaggart refers to Revelation 20:1, "for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away." In that text a different form of parerchomai is used, but in either case the question is: what does it mean? First we look at as broad a usage as possible. In various forms the term is used 21 times in the New Testament. Fifteen of these indicate finality, not change; most of the other six indicate "going or passing by," e.g., Acts 16:8. Many of the 15 uses are in couplets that make the meaning obvious. In italics are the words that are identical in Greek. "Till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law" (Matt. 5:18)."... This generation will not pass away till all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away" (Matt. 24:34-35; also Mark 13:30-31; Luke 21:32-33). You cannot replace "pass away" with "change," or passing "from one condition to another." II Corinthians 5:17, James 1:10, and II Peter 3:10 are similar. If Revelation is to be read as predicting the future -- as all dispensationalists say it is to be read -- then why do they not do it? In Revelation 21:5 God says: "Behold, I make all things new." Swaggart just does not want the earth let go. I wonder why.

The new earth will be different, without oceans, but also without rebellion and evil. At last all will be well. And then, "to stun men’s minds," says Swaggart, ever conscious of effect, the New Jerusalem will come down "transferring God the Father’s throne" to earth. The new city will be 1,500 miles square. "God will change His headquarters from heaven to New Jerusalem on earth and will reign in total righteousness and love, among men..."

Swaggart’s God is not small, but tiny. In an age when people learn of an infinite or expanding universe, these preachers depict a tribal god on a heaven-made throne in an immensely big city!

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