By George E. Ladd
We must now deal with a question that has become a subject of tragic controversy in many evangelical churches. Dispensationalism, which we discussed in the first chapter, has taught that there will be two comings of Christ, or rather, that the Second Coming of Christ will occur in two stages. We have seen that Dispensationalism teaches that there are two peoples of God -- Israel and the church -- and that God has two different programs -- one for Israel and one for the church. The program for Israel is an earthly, theocratic program; the program for the church is a spiritual, heavenly program. Corresponding to this are two phases in the Second Coming of Christ. The Bible teaches, as we shall see in the next chapter, that the struggle between the Kingdom of God and the power of Satan will come to its climax in a brief but terrible struggle between Satan and the church, where the devil will try to turn all men away from Christ. This will be a time of fearful martyrdom; it is called the Great Tribulation (Matt. 24: 21; Rev. 7:14). Dispensationalists hold that Christ will come before the Tribulation begins to raise the dead saints and to catch up the living saints (the Rapture) to be with him in heaven. Thus the church will escape the Great Tribulation; the persecution against the "saints" will be directed against Israel -- the living Jews. At the end of the Tribulation Christ will return, this time accompanied by the church (I Thess. 3:13), to rescue Israel and to bring them into his millennial Kingdom. These two comings of Christ have been called the Rapture -- when he comes to catch up the church -- and the Revelation. The Rapture will be a secret coming, known only by the church. The Revelation will be a public, visible coming where he comes with power and glory to establish his Kingdom.
This pretribulation coming of Christ to raise the dead saints and to rapture the hiving church has become the most characteristic doctrine of Dispensationalists. We must examine the language used in the New Testament to see if it supports this idea of a coming of Christ before the Great Tribulation.
Three words are employed in the New Testament to describe the second advent. The first is "parousia," which means "coming," "arrival," or "presence." This is the word most frequently used of our Lord's return and it is used in connection with the Rapture of the church.
We that are alive, that are left unto the parousia of the Lord, shall in no wise precede them that are fallen 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 that are alive, that are left, shall together with them be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so shall we ever be with the Lord. (1 Thess. 4: 15-17)
It is very difficult to find a secret coming of Christ in these verses. His coming will be attended with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the heavenly trumpet. Someone has said that the shout and the trumpet sound will be loud enough to wake the dead!
Furthermore, the parousia of Christ will occur not only to rapture the church and to raise the righteous dead but also to destroy the Man of Lawlessness, the Antichrist. "And then shall be revealed the lawless one, whom the Lord Jesus shall slay with the breath of his mouth, and bring to naught by the manifestation of his parousia" (II Thess. 2:8). This is obviously no secret event, for the parousia of Christ will be an outshining, a manifestation. Furthermore, this verse locates the parousia at the end of the Tribulation. One would naturally conclude by comparing the verses just cited that the Rapture of the living saints, the resurrection of those who have died, and the judgment upon the Antichrist will all take place at the same time, namely, at the parousia of Jesus at the end of Tribulation.
Furthermore, it is at his parousia that Jesus will be accompanied by all his saints. Paul prays that God may establish the Thessalonians in holiness "at the parousia of our Lord Jesus with all his saints" (I Thess. 3:13). At his parousia the Lord will come to bring his saints with him, to raise the righteous dead to rapture the living believers, and to destroy Antichrist.
The parousia will be a glorious event. Christ will destroy the Man of Lawlessness by the breath of his mouth and "by the manifestation of his parousia" (II Thess. 2:8). The rendition of the King James Version is not wrong: "by the brightness of his coming." This epiphany will be a glorious event, for Paul speaks of "the epiphany of the glory of our great God and our Saviour" (Titus 2:13).
We find the same teaching of a glorious visible parousia in Jesus' words. "For as the lightning cometh forth from the east, and is seen even unto the west; so shall be the parousia of the Son of man" (Matt. 24:27). It will be like a bolt of lightning, glorious, visible, evident to all.
The usual answer given to these facts by those who separate the coming of Christ into two parts is that parousia means "presence" and therefore covers the entire period of time which is introduced by the Rapture and the beginning of the Tribulation. Thus, we are told, parousia can refer either to the coming of Christ at the Rapture or to his Revelation at the end of the Tribulation.
It is true that sometimes parousia does mean "presence." Paul contrasts his presence (parousia) with the Philippians with his absence (apousia) from them (Phil. 2:12). The Corinthians accused Paul of inconsistency, because "his letters . . . are strong, but his bodily presence is weak" (II Cor. 10:10). However, the word does not always mean "presence"; more often it means "arrival." When Paul in Ephesus received envoys from Corinth, he rejoiced at their parousia, that is, their coming or arrival (I Cor. 16:17). When Paul was concerned about the condition of things at Corinth, he was comforted by the arrival (parousia) of Titus (II Cor. 7:6). It was not the presence of Titus but his arrival with good news from Corinth that provided the comfort. To translate parousia by "presence" would empty it of its particular point. This is illustrated in the following instances: "Be patient, brethren, until the parousia of the Lord . . . . Be ye also patient; establish your hearts; for the parousia of the Lord is at hand" (Jas. 5:7-8) . "Where is the promise of his parousia?" (II Pet. 3:4). In these verses it is the coming, the return, the advent of the Lord which is called for; "presence" does not suit the context.
It is not the presence so much as the coming of Christ which is required in the verses we have just discussed. It is at the coming, the advent of Christ, that the dead will be raised and the living caught up; "presence" does not fit. It is at his coming, his advent, not his presence, that he will be accompanied by his saints. His coming, his advent, will be like a bolt of lightning. The parousia of Christ is his second coming, and it will bring both salvation and judgment: salvation of the saints, and judgment of the world.
A second word used of our Lord's return is apokalypsis, which means "revelation." The apocalypse or Revelation of Christ is distinguished by pretribulationists from the Rapture of the church and is placed at the end of the Tribulation when Christ comes in glory to bring judgment upon the world. If this view is correct, then the apocalypse of Christ is not primarily the blessed hope of the Christian. When the Revelation occurs, the saints will have been raptured and will have received from the hand of Christ their rewards for the things done in the body. They will already have entered into the full enjoyment of life and fellowship with Christ. The apocalypse of Christ is for judgment of the wicked, not for the salvation of the church. According to pretribulationism, the Rapture at the secret coming of Christ is our blessed hope and the object of our fond expectation, not the Revelation.
This, however, is not what we find in the Scripture. We are "waiting for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ" (I Cor. 1: 7). According to pretribulationism we are not waiting for the Revelation but for the Rapture. The church is to suffer affliction until the time of the apocalypse of Christ. Paul says that "it is a righteous thing with God to recompense affliction to them that afflict you, and to you that are afflicted, rest with us, at the revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ from heaven, with the angels of his power in flaming fire" (II Thess. 1:6-7). According to pretribulationism this rest from persecution has already been experienced at the Rapture; it does not await the Revelation of Jesus Christ. But the Word of God says it is received at the Revelation.
It has recently been argued that the expression in the Greek does not mean "when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed," but "in the revelation of the Lord Jesus," that is, not the moment when Christ is revealed but the period of time during which his revelation occurs. When Christ is revealed, the afflicted will already be enjoying rest. This, however, is a very unnatural interpretation of Paul's language. Let us take note of the full expression: "if indeed it is a righteous thing with God to recompense . . . to you who are afflicted, rest with us, in the revelation of the Lord Jesus." The verb "to recompense" controls two objects: (1) affliction to those who afflict you, and (2) rest to you who are afflicted. Both the recompense of affliction and of rest will be "in the revelation of the Lord." If affliction is to be given when Christ is revealed, then the rest must also be given when Christ is revealed. To say that the rest has already been received and is being enjoyed is imposing upon the verse an assumption which is controverted by the wording of the passage.
Peter employs the same expression. Now we are partakers of the sufferings of Christ, that "at the revelation of his glory also ye may rejoice with exceeding joy" (1Pet. 4:13) . This suggests that the fiery trial will be terminated only at the apocalypse of Christ. Furthermore, Peter says that the genuineness of our faith will bring "praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (I Pet. 1: 7). According to pretribulationism this glory and honor has already been experienced at an earlier time at the Rapture of the church. This verse, however, asserts that one of the purposes of the apocalypse of Christ is to bring to his people glory and honor because of their steadfastness in their faith. Finally, Peter assures us that our hope of the perfection in grace will be brought unto us at the Revelation of Jesus Christ. If these two events are one and the same, these verses are full of meaning. If, however, these blessings are not received at the Revelation but at an earlier Rapture, these verses are quite perplexing and difficult. It is difficult to see how a distinction can be made between these two events. The Revelation is continually made the object of our hope; the Rapture must therefore occur at the Revelation of Christ. The Scripture nowhere asserts that there is a Rapture which will take place before the Revelation.
The third word which is used of Christ's second coming is epiphaneia, which means "manifestation" and must therefore, according to the pretribulation scheme, refer not to the Rapture of the church and a secret coming of Christ at the beginning of the Tribulation but to the Revelation of Christ with his saints at the end of the Tribulation to bring judgment upon the world. It is indeed used in this latter meaning, for Christ will slay the man of lawlessness by the "epiphany of his parousia" (II Thess. 2:8). It is clear that his epiphany will occur at the end of the Tribulation.
This epiphany of Christ is, however, like his apocalypse the object of the believer's hope, as it could not be if the church had received the object of its hope at an earlier time at the Rapture. Paul exhorts us to keep the commandment without spot and without reproach "until the epiphany of our Lord Jesus Christ" (ITim. 6:14). At the end of his life Paul expressed confidence that he had fought a good fight, and looking forward to the day of rewards at the judgment seat of Christ, he says, "henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness which the Lord the righteous judge shall give me at that day; and not to me only, but also to all them that have loved his epiphany" (II Tim, 4:8) . One can only conclude from a passage such as this that "that day" which Paul anticipates as a day of rewards is the day of Christ's epiphany. It is therefore a day upon which Christians have set their affection, the object of Christian hope. And it is the day of giving rewards to believers. Pretribulationism places the judgment of rewards between the Rapture and the Revelation. Here, it is located at the epiphany, which is the same as the Revelation, at the end of the Tribulation.
This line of thought is clinched by Titus 2:13 and 14: "looking for the blessed hope and the epiphany of the glory of the great God and Saviour Jesus Christ; who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify unto himself a people for his own possession, zealous for good works." The blessed hope of the church is the epiphany of the glory of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.
If the Rapture of the church, when we are caught up to meet Christ in the air, is separated by a considerable period of time from his apocalypse and his epiphany, then this is strange language indeed. For according to pretribulationism the coming of Christ at the end of the Tribulation has nothing to do with the reward of his saints or with the salvation of the righteous. The dead have already been raised and the living translated into their resurrection bodies. The judgment of works is now past and the rewards of Christ to his faithful servants have been distributed. The apocalypse and the epiphany of Christ at the end of the Tribulation have as their object judgment and not salvation. Yet according to the Word of God, this epiphany is our blessed hope; it is the time when we shall be rewarded; it is the time when we shall be redeemed from all iniquity and purified to become God's perfect possession; it is the blessed hope of perfect union in fellowship with Christ. Does it not seem then that the Rapture of the church is to take place at the epiphany, not seven years earlier?
Certainly if one can make anything of language at all, no distinction can be made between the parousia, the apocalypse, and the epiphany of our Lord. They are one and the same event. Furthermore as we have already indicated, although it is argued that the parousia means "presence" and therefore covers the entire period of time introduced by his coming to rapture the church, it is clear from Scripture's use of the words "apocalypse" and 'epiphany" that the Revelation of Christ is not an event which has to do exclusively with judgment. It is also the day upon which the believer's hope is set when he will enter into the completed blessings of salvation at Christ's second coming.
We can only conclude that the distinction between the Rapture of the church and the Revelation of Christ is an inference which is nowhere asserted by the Word of God and not required by the terminology relating to the return of Christ. On the contrary, if any inference is to be drawn, the terminology suggests that the Revelation of Christ is, like the Rapture, the day of the believer's salvation when he enters into consummated fellowship with the Lord and receives his reward from the hand of the Lord. The parousia, the apocalypse, and the epiphany appear to be a single event. Any division of Christ's coming into two parts is an unproven inference.
The fact that even pretribulationists feel some embarrassment in trying to separate the Second Coming of Christ into two events or even into two separate parts may be seen in the contention of one of the most recent writers of this school who maintains that the return of Christ for his church is not the Second Coming of Christ. This view makes a distinction between the return of Christ and his second coming. This is an utterly unwarranted distinction. No support is sought for it in the words used to describe Christ's return. The words "return" and "second coming" are not properly speaking biblical words in that the two words do not represent any equivalent Greek words. There is no difference in the concepts conveyed to the mind by "return" and "coming." It is in other words an artificial and impossible distinction. Christ's parousia is his return: his return is his coming; his coming is his second advent.
The vocabulary used of our Lord's return lends no support for the idea of two comings of Christ or of two aspects of his coming. On the contrary, it substantiates the view that the return of Christ will be a single, indivisible, glorious event.