What Is Dispensationalism?

Dispensationalism is an approach to understanding the relationship between the Old and New Testaments that sees more discontinuity than continuity between them. The church and Israel are strictly distinct peoples of God and do not mix any more than oil and water. Dispensationalism views redemptive history in seven stages: innocence (Adam to fall), conscience (fall to flood), human government (flood to Abraham), promise (Abraham to Moses), law (Moses to Christ), grace (Christ to his second coming), and the millennial kingdom. Each period involves a time of testing where man fails God’s test to which God responds by beginning a new dispensation. Adam failed, the people in Noah’s day failed, the people at Babel failed, Israel failed in the desert, Israel failed again leading to the exile to Babylon, the church fails leading to the rapture, and the rebels at the end of the millennium fail to obey God and are destroyed.

Dispensationalism is best known for its system of eschatology as popularized by C. I. Scofield’s Study Bible, Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, and Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series. This view is known as pretribulational premillennialism, first promoted by John Nelson Darby, which teaches that the church will be raptured from the earth seven years before the second coming of Christ. The church is a parenthesis in God’s plans for Israel and the rapture of the church is a necessary step before God can fulfill his promises to Israel. After the second coming, Israel will enter the millennium with unresurrected bodies and return to observing the Mosaic law in accordance with Ezekiel 40-48. At the end of the millennium, some of the descendants of those who enter the millennium will rebel against Christ before being destroyed in accordance with the premillennial interpretation of Revelation 20.

The dispensational approach to Old Testament laws is that every Old Testament law has been abrogated and done away with in the church age so that only the laws of the New Testament are binding on Christians today. Old Testament laws are only applicable to Christians if they are repeated in the New Testament. But the result of this hermeneutic is that the entire Old Testament is now irrelevant for the study of Christian ethics since anything it says must be repeated in the New Testament for it to be binding on us. They also reject the threefold division of the law into moral, judicial, and ceremonial laws. This is why Charles Spurgeon opposed dispensationalism as a form of antinomianism. As one of my professors said, it’s difficult to find Old Testament scholars who are dispensationalists. Why would you want to become a scholar of books whose ethical teachings are only binding on Christians today if they are repeated in the New Testament? The opposite approach is that of covenant theology which states that every law in the Old Testament is binding on Christians today except for those which are abrogated by the New Testament or those which can be clearly shown to be ways Israel was to distinguish themselves from the nations around them and are not related to any of the Ten Commandments which is a summary of the moral law.

Dispensationalism should not be confused with hyper-dispensationalism which is the application of the dispensational hermeneutic concerning the Old Testament to the teachings of Jesus and much of the book of Acts. Hyper-dispensationalists argue that unless a command in the Gospels or the first half of Acts is repeated in the letters of the New Testament, it is not binding on Christians today because Jesus’ teachings were specifically for the Jews and not the church. They argue that the message of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount is not directly relevant for Christians today, only for Israel and those living in the millennium since Jesus was not addressing the church since it didn’t exist then. Some hyper-dispensationalists even argue that baptism is not for the church today because it is rooted in Jewish customs and not part of the church age. Other beliefs associated with hyper-dispensationalism include the teaching that repentance is not necessary for salvation, Sandemanianism, antinomianism, the belief that Israelites before Christ were saved by works, and neglecting to teach on God’s holiness, justice, and wrath.

Hyper-dispensationalism is essentially a return to Marcionism without the polytheistic dualism. The heretic Marcion rejected the Old Testament and the Gospels as canonical and only considered the writings of Paul and an edited version of Luke to be authoritative. While hyper-dispensationalists do not claim to reject these writings as canonical, they are functionally non-canonical because what they teach can only be true for the church today if the letters of the New Testament affirm what they teach. Hence, hyper-dispensationalism is a reductio ad absurdum which God ordained to expose the dispensational approach to the laws of the Old Testament since, according to dispensationalism, the church was not in existence while Jesus was on earth. Therefore, how could his teachings be directly relevant to a group that did not exist then if they are going to use the same argument with regard to Old Testament laws since the church did not exist then either?

Review of “Amillennialism and the Age to Come” by Matt Waymeyer

I grew up being taught that both the pretribulational rapture and premillennialism were gospel truth. But after an examination of every text in the Bible on the second coming of Christ, I came to the conclusion that amillennialism was the teaching of Scripture. I bought Waymeyer’s book to evaluate the best new arguments for premillennialism to see if my beliefs needed to be changed in light of Scripture. While my beliefs have not changed, it has forced me to take a closer look at Scripture and for that I am thankful. I appreciate that Waymeyer has taken the time to carefully study and accurately represent the amillennial position throughout his work. In this review, I will explain why I am not persuaded by his arguments.

A major weakness of the book is that there is almost no discussion of Ezekiel 40-48 and the animal sacrifices described there. While dispensationalists have interpreted these to be “memorial sacrifices” commemorating the death of Christ, the text calls them sin and guilt offerings (Ezek 40:39; 45:17-25). We also see the Levitical priesthood and the Jewish Sabbath (Ezek 43:19; 46:1-4). If this is a literal description of the future, then it would overturn the theology of the book of Hebrews which teaches that the shadows of the Old Testament have been done away with in Christ (Col 2:16-17; Heb 7:11-28). Therefore, in light of the teachings of the New Testament and the parallels to Revelation 21-22 (Ezek 47:12 and Zech 14:8 with Rev 22:1-2 for example), Ezekiel’s temple is a depiction of the new heavens and new earth as an idealized present using symbolic language that the original readers could relate to.

But Waymeyer will not allow amillennialists to interpret the Old Testament passages he believes describe a millennium (Ps 72; Isa 2:1-3; 11:1-9; 65:17-25; Zech 8:4-5; 14:16-19) using the hermeneutic that the future is being described as an idealized present in Old Testament prophecy. But if this is not a valid method of interpreting Old Testament prophecy, then he has no way of reconciling the sin offerings of Ezekiel’s temple with the teachings of Hebrews. There is an unwillingness throughout the book to allow the didactic passages of the New Testament to interpret the apocalyptic passages of the Old Testament. As he argues, “later revelation often supplements and clarifies earlier revelation by providing broader context or additional detail, but it never reinterprets or changes the meaning of those previous passages in the process” (301). But if we do not reinterpret Ezekiel’s temple in light of the teachings of the New Testament, we have created a reductio ad absurdum where people continue to make animal sacrifices for their sins after Christ has died on the cross (Heb 10:1-14). See Sam Waldron’s book More of the End Times Made Simple for more detail on this point.

I agree with Waymeyer that “prophetic foreshortening” is a valid method of interpreting Old Testament prophecy where a prophet quickly describes multiple events that will take place in the future even though we learn from later revelation that there are gaps between each event. He uses this device to argue that Isaiah 65:20 is describing death in the millennium even though verse 17 begins by describing this period as the new heavens and new earth rather seeing verse 20 as an idealized depiction of this time. But then he argues that amillennialists cannot legitimately use prophetic foreshortening to interpret those Old Testament passages he believes describe the millennium in a way consistent with amillennialism. However, if amillennialists can use prophetic foreshortening together with recognizing that the future is depicted as an idealized present in these passages, then they are able to interpret them in a way that does not demand a millennium by seeing them fulfilled partially in the New Testament and finally in the new heavens and new earth using the language of accommodation.

When it comes to the millennium, I believe the key issue is whether all believers at the second coming will receive resurrected and glorified bodies. We both agree that all unbelievers at the second coming will be condemned to hell for their sins in contrast to posttribulationism (Luke 17:26-30). But the earth during Revelation 20 is still inhabited by unbelievers (Rev 20:3, 8). If this passage takes place after the second coming, how did they get there? This is why the rapture of the church and the second coming of Christ must be separated by a period of time as taught by pretribulationism in order for premillennialism to be true so that the tribulation saints can enter the millennium with unresurrected bodies and reproduce. But if the rapture and the second coming are not separated from each other, then Revelation 20 must be interpreted in light of the truth that all believers at the second coming will receive resurrected bodies which do not reproduce (Luke 20:34-36).

But there is a gigantic problem with separating 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 from the second coming of Christ: if the second coming occurs seven years after the rapture, then the date of Christ’s coming could be calculated to the exact day by those living in this tribulation period! But the Bible always teaches that the date of Christ’s coming cannot be calculated and will come unexpectedly (Matt 24:36, 42-44, 50; 25:13; Luke 12:39-40; 1 Thess 5:2-3; 2 Pet 3:10; Rev 16:15). In light of the popularity of the Left Behind series, if there is an actual tribulation period after all Christians are raptured from the earth, then the people living in this time would all be able to count down the days until the second coming of Christ. Therefore, an eschatology with a seven-year tribulation period cannot be the teaching of Scripture or else the date of Christ’s second coming would be known to man. In addition, the New Testament uses the term parousia or “coming” of Christ interchangeably in both rapture passages and with reference to the second coming.

While much can be said about Revelation 20, I will just focus on Waymeyer’s five objections to the amillennial interpretation of the “first resurrection” in 20:5-6 as the translation of the saints at death into the presence of Christ. First, he argues that the term anastasis or “resurrection” that is used in Revelation 20 almost always refers to bodily resurrection so that is how it should be understood here (219-20). But this argument is similar to the argument annihilationists use based on Revelation 20:6, 14 that hell is annihilation because it is called the second “death” and death in Scripture almost always refers to a cessation of conscious existence. But the annihilationist argument is flawed because it ignores how death is being modified by “second” to indicate that this is not literal death, but the metaphorical second death of the age to come which never ends. More importantly, it overlooks how death is being defined by the context as never-ending torment (20:10). So likewise, when John calls this resurrection the “first” resurrection, he is distinguishing it from the one that takes place on the day of judgment. Because there are still unbelievers around during Revelation 20, this is John’s way of informing us that second coming has not taken place yet in this vision. Because the second coming has not taken place yet, the first resurrection is that resurrection which corresponds with this age. Since those John sees in his vision are described as “souls” who sit on “thrones,” this is additional evidence John is describing the intermediate state (Rev 4:4; 6:9).

Second, Waymeyer argues “if the ‘first resurrection’ does not consist of a physical resurrection, then Revelation 20 contains no explicit mention of the future resurrection as the consummation of the believer’s hope” (220). But doesn’t Revelation 20:11-15 describe the future resurrection? Waymeyer responds to this objection by saying, “this passage describes only the resurrection of judgment which awaits unbelievers” (220). But what about believers who die during the millennium? Where does it mention their resurrection? If Revelation 20:11-15 only describes the resurrection of unbelievers, does that mean believers who die during the millennium will not receive resurrected bodies?

Third, Waymeyer argues that this specific amillennial interpretation of the “first resurrection” was not advocated before the twentieth century. Therefore, such an interpretation calls into question the perspicuity or clarity of Scripture (221). But this same argument could be used against his own belief in the pretribulational rapture where 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 takes place seven years before the second coming since this belief was not taught in the church until the nineteenth century. Fourth, he argues that the non-sequential meaning of first “is highly questionable” (221). But as an amillennialist, I have no problem with seeing “first” and “second” as taking place in sequential order. The first resurrection to the intermediate state takes place before the second resurrection on the day of judgment and the first death when a person dies takes place before sinners are thrown into the lake of fire. Fifth, he argues “How can a ‘resurrection to heavenly glories’ – including the blessings it brings to those who are resurrected – be considered part of the present, sin-cursed creation order?” (225). Because the intermediate state where the saints reign with Christ is not part of the “sin-cursed creation order.” The saints in heaven are without sin and are free from the effects of the fall (Rev 7:13-17).

The way I would interpret the relationship between the “first resurrection” and “second death” is that the passage is teaching that the wicked experience two deaths (one literal at death and one metaphorical at the resurrection when they are cast into hell) while the righteous experience two resurrections (one metaphorical at death and one literal at the resurrection to eternal life). The first resurrection and second death are metaphorical while the second resurrection and first death are literal. Though believers participate in the first death as unbelievers do, for them it is a kind of resurrection. While unbelievers participate in the second resurrection as believers do, for them it is a kind of death. The first death for believers leads to the first resurrection while the second resurrection leads to the second death for unbelievers. The first resurrection and first death correspond to those which take place during this age while the second resurrection and second death correspond to those which take place in the age to come.

There are several important verses related to this question that Waymeyer does not mention or only mentions in passing without giving an interpretation. Matthew 12:41-42 teaches that the men of Nineveh and the Queen of the South “will rise up at the judgment with this generation.” This means that believers will be raised from the dead on the day of judgment together with unbelievers. But in premillennialism, believers are raised up at least a thousand years before unbelievers. Matthew 13:43 teaches that all believers (since all believers are righteous) at the second coming will be glorified and given resurrected bodies based on Jesus’ allusion to Daniel 12:2-3 describing the resurrected bodies of the righteous.

Waymeyer rightly sees that “the kingdom of God” in 1 Corinthians 15:50 is the eternal state (165). But he never mentions the parallel between this text and Matthew 25:34 where the kingdom the righteous inherit is the one which is established at the second coming. Since corruptible bodies will not inherit it, all of the righteous will have resurrected bodies. Luke 1:33 and Daniel 7:27 teach that the messianic kingdom set up at the second coming will never end whereas premillennialism teaches that the kingdom of Christ will one day end leading to the eternal state. There is no mention of John’s use of the “last day” when all of the elect are raised up (John 6:39-40, 44, 54; 11:24; 12:48). It is called the last day because it is the last day of this age. On that day, those who rejected Christ while he was on earth will be judged (12:48). This indicates that both believers and unbelievers will be resurrected at the same time. Also, are those living in the millennium among those who were given to the Son by the Father? If they are, then wouldn’t they be raised up after the last day instead of on it?

Acts 3:21 teaches that Christ must remain in heaven “until the time all things are restored.” This indicates that 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 is the time when Christ will restore all things. But according to premillennialism, the restoration of all things does not occur until at least a thousand years after Christ returns. There is no discussion of the parallels between John 5:28, 1 Thessalonians 4:16, and 1 Corinthians 15:52 which indicate that these events all take place at the same time. Hebrews 10:12-13 interprets Psalm 110:1 to be a description of the present reign of Christ in heaven now rather than one which will take place in the future. This should influence whether we interpret 1 Corinthians 15:25 to be a description of what is happening now or something that only takes place after the coming of Christ. 1 John 2:28 warns us to abide in Christ so that we will not shrink from him in shame at his coming. But why would unbelievers shrink from Christ in shame at his coming in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17, the time when Christ comes for his church, if this event is not the second coming when unbelievers are condemned for their sins?

If Revelation 11:15-19 is a description of the second coming of Christ and the final judgment, in light of verse 18 which says that now is the time for the dead to be judged, would that not prove that the resurrection of the wicked takes place at the second coming? With reference to Gog and Magog in Revelation 20, Waymeyer says, “John’s allusion should not be understood as a direct fulfillment of the events predicted by Ezekiel” (292). But Waymeyer overlooks the parallel between Ezekiel 38:22 in Revelation 20:9 which describes the army assembled against Israel as being destroyed by fire and sulfur coming down from heaven. Since Daniel 7:9-10 is being quoted in Revelation 20:12 when it says “the books were opened,” the events at the end of Revelation 20 take place at the same time as Daniel 7:9-10. And the judgment of Daniel 7:11 occurs at the downfall of the man of sin which is at the second coming of Christ (2 Thess 2:8). Waymeyer also does not address the question of what happens to people who die during the millennium since Jesus is already on earth. Where do they go after they die?

And lastly, if the events of Revelation 18-20 must be interpreted in a strictly chronological fashion, then the result is that the marriage supper of the Lamb in Revelation 19:7-9 is only for a portion of God’s elect since the second coming has not taken place yet in the futurist reading of Revelation. Are the tribulation saints on earth not part of Christ’s bride? If they are, how could they miss out on their own marriage supper? It is for these reasons why I am not persuaded by Waymeyer’s work. If Waymeyer decides to release a second edition of his book, he should interact with these verses together with Ezekiel 40-48. I have written about my own views on the second coming of Christ in my theses on eschatology.

The Subterranean Intermediate State in the Early Church

One of the unique beliefs of some of the early church fathers is that the intermediate state between death and the resurrection for believers is not in heaven where Christ is, but under the earth. According to them, only martyrs can go to heaven to be with Christ when they die (Rev 6:9). But this view is contradicted by the Bible’s teaching that all Christians at death go to be with the Lord rather than abiding in an underground abode (Luke 23:43; John 13:1; 2 Cor 5:1-10; Phil 1:21-24; 1 Thess 4:14; Heb 12:23; Rev 7:14-17). Tertullian was one of the first to teach this view when he says:

“Observe how he here also ascribes to the excellence of martyrdom a contempt for the body. For no one, on becoming absent from the body, is at once a dweller in the presence of the Lord, except by the prerogative of martyrdom, he gains a lodging in Paradise, not in the lower regions” (On the Resurrection of the Flesh 43).

Tertullian believed that this was the place Christ went to upon his death and that only with our own life blood shed in martyrdom can we enter heaven instead of hades before the resurrection:

“Christ in His death spent three days in the heart of the earth, that is, in the secret inner recess which is hidden in the earth, and enclosed by the earth, and superimposed on the abysmal depths which lie still lower down. Now although Christ is God, yet, being also man, ‘He died according to the Scriptures,’ and ‘according to the same Scriptures was buried.’ With the same law of His being He fully complied, by remaining in Hades in the form and condition of a dead man; nor did He ascend into the heights of heaven before descending into the lower parts of the earth, that He might there make the patriarchs and prophets partakers of Himself. . . . No, but in Paradise, you tell me, whither already the patriarchs and prophets have removed from Hades in the retinue of the Lord’s resurrection. How is it, then, that the region of Paradise, which as revealed to John in the Spirit lay under the altar, displays no other souls as in it besides the souls of the martyrs? How is it that the most heroic martyr Perpetua on the day of her passion saw only her fellow martyrs there, in the revelation which she received of Paradise, if it were not that the sword which guarded the entrance permitted none to go in thereat, except those who had died in Christ and not in Adam? A new death for God, even the extraordinary one for Christ, is admitted into the reception-room of mortality, specially altered and adapted to receive the new-comer. . . . The sole key to unlock Paradise is your own life’s blood. You have a treatise by us, (on Paradise), in which we have established the position that every soul is detained in safe keeping in Hades until the day of the Lord” (A Treatise on the Soul 55).

This same belief was continued by Victorinus in his commentary on Revelation:

“(As the golden altar is acknowledged to be heaven) so also by the brazen altar is understood the earth, under which is Hades (infernum) – a region withdrawn from punishments and fires, a place of repose for the saints, wherein indeed the just are seen and heard by the impious, but they cannot pass over to them” (Commentary on Revelation 6).

Charles E. Hill concludes that there is a link between this view of the intermediate state and millennialism:

“If souls are ushered into heaven, into the very presence of God and Christ, immediately after death and not detained in refreshing subearthly vaults, a future, earthly kingdom would seem at best an anticlimactic appendage to salvation history, at worst a serious and unconscionable retrogression. The millennium is then entirely redundant. . . . As introducing the redeemed into direct fellowship with their Savior and their God this heavenly postmortem existence takes the place of the millennium” (Regnum Caelorum: Patterns of Millennial Thought in Early Christianity, 20).

They believed that a subterranean intermediate state is necessary because going from the presence of Christ in heaven back down to a paradise earth without him would be a step backward in salvation history. They must therefore go from an underground paradise to an earthly millennial paradise and then to a heavenly paradise with Christ where they will join the martyrs and finally experience the beatific vision.

How Is Death Gain?

This Saturday I will be preaching the memorial service for my grandmother Shirley who passed away last month. The text I have chosen to preach on is Philippians 1:21 where Paul say, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” But how can dying be gain? Death is not a good thing. The Bible describes death as an enemy, not a friend to be embraced (1 Cor 15:26). We put off thinking about death because it reminds us that we will one day die as well. Funerals are one of the rare occasions when we are forced to stare it in the face and admit our own mortality. The deaths of others remind us that our life is a vapor that is here one moment and gone the next (Jas 4:14). The puritans were unsure whether to call this life a dying life or living death. Every day we inch closer to our own demise and we feel the evidence of this as our bodies deteriorate and decay.

Death exists because of man’s fall into sin and rebellion against God. Because of sin, we live in fear of death. The wages of sin is death and therefore the only way death could be defeated is by defeating sin, the power of death (Rom 6:23; 1 Cor 15:56). Only Christianity has a savior who has come back from the dead and that is why Christ is the only way to God. And because Shirley trusted in Christ who defeated death, even though she is dead, she has gained everything. We can only have confidence in the face of death because we believe in one who has returned from death. He is on the other side waiting for the day when we will be with him forever as his bride.

Death is gain for believers because it will put an end to their sins. At death, they enter into never-ending service and worship. Death puts an end to our temptations. We are tempted and tried all our days. After death, we will never again be troubled by Satan’s fiery darts. Death puts an end to the believer’s fears. We do not need to live in fear of death because Christ has conquered death through his own death and resurrection.

Death drys up the believers tears. We enter the world crying and leave it the same way if we die without Christ. But we can leave it in joy if we are in Christ when we die. Death puts an end to our cares and worries. A life lived by faith is the dawn of heaven and a preparation for eternity. Death puts an end to our spiritual desertion. God will no longer hide his face from us. Death puts an end to our weary pilgrimage. This life is a journey and the end of it is the celestial city in the new heavens and new earth where our bodies will be resurrected and glorified.

It is not wrong for Christians to grieve when their loved ones die. We each grieve in different ways. But the grief of Christians is not like the grief of those who have no hope (1 Thess 4:13). We should not grieve excessively for those who have had every tear wiped from their eyes. We should not mourn immoderately for those who are now rejoicing in the presence of Christ. Rather, let us weep for ourselves that we are not yet free from the burden of sin.

What Will Heaven Be Like?

C. S. Lewis once said, “The Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next” (Mere Christianity, 134). Those who are most heavenly minded are the ones who will be of the most earthly good. That is because they are convinced that the greatest good of this present life which is passing away is to lay up treasure in heaven by working for that which will not pass away (Matt 6:19-20). They are sending their treasures forward rather than keeping them here in a world that is perishing. That means those who live for eternity invest themselves in that which will last for eternity: people who will live forever in either heaven or hell. But once we get to heaven, what will it be like?

There is a great deal of misunderstanding about this question because heaven in the Bible is divided into two stages: the intermediate state where we go after we die to be with Christ until the resurrection (Rev 6:9-11) and the New Heavens and the New Earth (Rev 21-22) which come afterward. While I have written on the question of what happens when we die, this article will focus on eternity future. The New Heavens and New Earth is the eternal home of the people of God after the resurrection of the dead and the final judgment. There will be no more sin, crying, or pain, but all things will be made new (Rev 21:4). The saints will never hunger or thirst again because Christ will be their shepherd who is altogether satisfying (Rev 7:17). Marriage will be no more because all of Christ’s bride will be married to him (Rev 19:7). The Lord’s supper will be no more because we will feast and celebrate with one another and our risen savior (Matt 26:29). There will no longer be a weekly day of rest because heaven will be a never-ending Sabbath (Heb 4:9-11). God the Father will display his love and kindness to us for all eternity (Eph 2:7). Heaven is beyond anything we can ask or imagine (1 Cor 2:9). We will always be in the presence of God perfectly and without sin (Eze 48:35).

But what will we do in the New Heavens and New Earth? Heaven will be filled with worship (Rev 5:9-14), service (Rev 7:15), reigning with Christ (Rev 5:10), rejoicing (Rev 19:7), and fellowship with one another (1 Thess 4:17). We will see the face of God, the one who was crucified for us (Rev 22:4). The Christian view of heaven is one that is God-centered, not man-centered. In contrast, the heavens of Islam and Mormonism are centered around fulfilling carnal fleshly desires. God is not big enough in their religions to be satisfying. He needs to be supplemented with all these other pleasures because he is not enough in himself. But we believe that our God is big enough to fully satisfy the deepest longings of our heart (Psa 16:11). We must not fall into the trap of inventing a kind of folklore heaven that is based on what we want heaven to look like instead of how the Bible describes it. Anyone who claims to have been to heaven and back is either lying or delusional (2 Cor 12:4). Not even the apostle Paul was given permission to talk about the things he saw. But even if he had, he could not describe them.

For those who are lost, this world is the closest they will ever get to heaven. For those who are saved, this world is the closest they will ever get to hell. That should motivate us to go to hell on earth to reach those who are perishing in their sin. For more on heaven, see the sermon “Heaven is a World of Love” by Jonathan Edwards.

Is Revelation 3:10 a Reference to the Rapture of the Church?

All Christians believe that the church will be “caught up” or raptured together to meet the Lord in the air at his coming (1 Thess 4:17). What is debated is whether or not this event is a description of the second coming of Christ or if it takes place several years before the second coming. Revelation 3:10 is often used to argue for a pretribulational rapture because, it is argued, Christ has promised to keep the church “from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world” which is a seven-year period of tribulation. What clearer evidence could be brought forth to argue that the church will be taken out of the world before this period of suffering? Why would God allow Christians to experience suffering and tribulation designed to punish unbelievers?

But a brief examination of the historical context behind Christ’s address to the church at Philadelphia in Revelation 3:7-13 demonstrates that this argument is taking the verse completely out of context. Who is Jesus talking to in these verses? Is he talking to the church which exists at the time of 1 Thessalonians 4:17 or the one that existed in the first century in the city of Philadelphia in modern-day Turkey? If Revelation 3:10 is a reference to the rapture of the church, was the Philadelphian church living in the first century raptured into heaven before a seven-year tribulation period culminating with the second coming of Christ? Are there two raptures of the church, one in the first century and one in the future? If 1 Thessalonians 4:17 was fulfilled in the first century, why do we still look forward to it? If the Philadelphian church was not raptured into heaven, then was Jesus lying when he told them they would be kept from that hour? Why would Jesus’ words not apply to the Philadelphian church of the first century but apply to the universal church in the future? The dispensational interpretation of this verse removes it from its context and reads into it a foreign meaning to justify a system of eschatology unknown in the pages of the Bible. This interpretation takes a specific promise to a unique group of Christians and universalizes it and projects it into the future. I have written about this subject before in my theses on eschatology.

If Revelation 3:10 is not a reference to the rapture, then what is it referring to? The closest parallel to it in the Bible is John 17:15 when Jesus prays, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.” The phrase “keep them from” is nearly identical in the Greek text except that Revelation 3:10 is “keep you from.” This is a prayer for protection in the midst of suffering, not a prayer for the removal of all suffering. “Take them out of the world” is an apt summary of the pretribulational understanding of the rapture where the church is taken out of the world before suffering tribulation. Jesus’ words in Revelation 3:10 are simply a repetition of his previous prayer in John 17:15. We are kept from Satan, not by being taken out of the world, but by being guarded from his attacks so that his temptations do not destroy us. The Philadelphian church was kept from that hour of testing, not by being taken out of the world, but by being protected by God through it the same way we are protected from Satan. To “keep you from” the trials coming upon the whole world is not a promise of removal when they come, but the granting of strength to persevere in the midst of them. Jesus kept them from that hour in the same sense that he keeps his church from the evil one. “The hour of trial that is coming on the whole world” is something that took place in the first century when the Philadelphian church still existed. If this is something that is still future, then Jesus would be a false prophet because he predicted events in the life of the Philadelphian church that never transpired.

The common dispensationalist response to these arguments is that the Philadelphian church was protected from the seven-year tribulation because they died before it began. In other words, Jesus was not wrong to say they would be protected from that hour because they never experienced it in the first place! But in that case, these words would not only be true of the Philadelphian church, but for every church that has ever lived on the face of the earth up until now. Can you imagine Jesus saying these same words to the church in Laodecia? “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth.” Or the church at Ephesus: “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth.” The promise to be kept from that hour is a reward for the faithful endurance of the Philadelphian church. Because they have been faithful to Christ, he will be faithful to them. That is not “legalism,” but the explicit reason Christ gives for why they are protected from that hour: “Because you have kept my word about patient endurance.” Not all churches keep Christ’s word about patient endurance. The church at Laodecia certainly did not.

Another argument against the view that this promise of Christ’s faithfulness was intended for the Philadelphian church in the first century is that “the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth” is directed toward unbelievers, not believers. How is the persecution of Christians living in first century Philadelphia a testing of unbelievers? But this objection ignores the truth that the persecution of Christians is one of the means God uses to test unbelievers to see how they respond to the suffering of Christ’s brothers. Their inaction makes them more accountable on the day of judgment. As Jesus says in Matthew 25:41-46: “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.'”

Other parallel texts that promise God’s faithfulness to his people in the midst of suffering also shed light on the meaning of this verse. God promises in Isaiah 43:2 to always be with his people in their suffering: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” The words of 2 Peter 2:9, “The Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials” is not a promise of immediate deliverance out of every hard situation, but the knowledge that no trial for the Christian can eternally keep him from God’s presence and love. Christians are protected from apostasy in persecution by the power of the Holy Spirit. Suffering and persecution are normal parts of the Christian life: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Pet 4:12). The church is experiencing tribulation now: “I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus” (Rev 1:9). Christians are partakers in “the tribulation” now. Tribulation is not something for only Christians in the future, but something we must go through if we are genuine Christians (Acts 14:22; 2 Tim 3:12). The persecuted church is praying that we might experience the same sufferings they do so that our faith might be strengthened. For more on the rapture of the church, see Sam Waldron’s book The End Times Made Simple.

What Happens When I Die?

My last article looked at the question of what happens to infants and unborn children who die. But what about us who have actually sinned and have beheld the glory of God through the created order? How the Bible answers that question is based on whether you are trusting in Christ alone to save you from the wrath of God. If you do not submit to Christ and repent of your sins, then at death you will be condemned (John 3:18, 36).  Peter describes the current state of the wicked who have died in this way: “the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment” (2 Pet 2:9). This punishment is depicted in the parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16 as a “place of torment” that should be avoided at all costs. And the only price that avails is the blood of Christ (1 Pet 1:19).

There are no more second chances after death. The Bible says, “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Heb 9:27). Postmortem evangelism, the belief that people can believe the gospel after they die, is a myth based on a misunderstanding of 1 Peter 3:19 which is talking about the preaching of Noah when the ark was being built to those who are now dead. At the resurrection of the dead, the wicked will be judged and condemned to the lake of fire (Rev 20:10-15; 14:9-11; Matt 25:46). The good news of the gospel is that Christ has died for sinners and has been raised from the dead to give repentance and forgiveness of sins (Acts 5:31). The Holy Spirit says, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom 10:9). Flee to the mercy of Christ to escape his wrath (Psa 2:12).

But if you are a born again Christian who confesses Christ as Lord, then death is the translation of your soul into the presence of Christ in heaven. Revelation 6:9 describes the saints in heaven in this way: “I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.” They are waiting patiently for the resurrection of the dead when they will be reunited with their bodies which will coincide with the judgment of those who killed them. Paul expresses this same truth when he says, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Phil 1:21-23). In 2 Corinthians 5:8-10, Paul says the same thing but adds the fact that Christians must give an account of themselves before God: “Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.”

Both believers and unbelievers must stand before Christ, but those who trust in him stand in the garments of Jesus’ blood and righteousness and will be acquitted on the basis of what he has done for his bride (Rom 8:34; 14:12; Phil 3:8-9). We must nevertheless give an account for how we have used the resources God has given us (Matt 25:23). A common question about the day of judgment is whether our sins will be brought up when we stand before Christ. I think Thomas Brooks gives a good answer to that question starting on page 52 of volume 5 of his works. As regards the chronology of eschatological events, the Bible’s focus is always first and foremost on encouraging Christians to endure to the end. Passages on the second coming of Christ exist to strengthen the faith of the church in the midst of suffering and equip them for tribulation and affliction, not to create a prophecy chart (Rev 1:9; 3:11).