>The idea of an imminent rapture of believers from the earth is a commonly accepted doctrine among many American evangelicals today. Within evangelicalism, it is likely that there are very few doctrines that have been simply taken for granted more than the pre-tribulational Rapture. This short paper will take a brief look at the teachings of the late Dr. John F. Walvoord, President and Professor of Systematic Theology at Dallas Theological Seminary from 1952-1986, concerning the doctrine of the Rapture and 1 Thessalonians.
Summary of Walvoord’s Rapture Doctrine from 1 Thessalonians
Dr. Walvoord places particular emphasis on the doctrine of the pre-tribulational Rapture when dealing with 1 Thessalonians. This section will focus on Walvoord’s interpretation of 1 Thess. 4:13-18 since he claims that this passage provides a “detailed account of the Rapture” and considers it to be one of two “crucial revelations” regarding the Rapture with the other being 1 Cor. 15:51-58.
Dr. Walvoord makes a distinction, of course, between the Rapture of the church and the second coming of Christ. Believers are caught up to heaven at the Rapture but at the second coming of Christ, they remain on earth. Walvoord believes that Jesus Christ first introduced the concept of the Rapture in Jn. 14:1-3 but Jesus did not expound upon it at that time. Walvoord states that 1 Thess. is where God provided more detailed revelation concerning the subject. According to Dr. Walvoord, a sequence of events is provided in 1 Thess. 4:16, 17 that reads,
“For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and thus we shall always be with the Lord” (NASB).
Walvoord’s Distinctions Between Rapture & 2nd coming of Christ
Saints meet Lord in the air
Living saints are translated
Christ transports sainst to heaven
Before the wrath
Christ returns to Mt. of Olives
No translation; resurrection is later
Christ remains on earth, reigns 1,000 yrs
Follows Great Tribulation
Many preceding signs fulfilled first
Walvoord teaches that 1 Thess. 4:17 contains the essential description of the Rapture when it states that believers who “remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds.” Dr. Walvoord relates this event to what is recorded in Jn. 14:1-3 by explaining that Christ was referring to the Rapture in this passage when He told His disciples that He was going to prepare a place for them in His Father’s house and that He would come again to take them where He was going. Again, Dr. Walvoord maintains a strict separation between the Rapture and the second coming of Christ. He believes that the Rapture takes before “the grand procession described in Revelation 19 of Christ’s return from heaven to earth to set up His earthly kingdom”. Although Dr. Walvoord believes that 1 Thess. 4:13-18 “is most informative concerning the nature of the Rapture” he does point out that the passage “is designed to be an encouragement to those who are living in Christ.”
One of the keys to Walvoord’s distinction between the Rapture and the second coming of Christ is his observation that the 1 Thess. passage does not include any mention of “world-shaking events” that are to precede the taking up described in 4:17. Dr. Walvoord points out that the second coming of Christ “will be preceded by divine judgments on the world and followed by the establishing of Christ’s earthly kingdom”. Walvoord also places significant importance on his observation that “the Rapture is never mentioned in any of the passages that relate to the Great Tribulation”. Since “no preceding events are ever revealed” in connection with the Rapture, he believes that “the Rapture in the New Testament is presented as an imminent event”.
Critique of Walvoord’s Rapture View
Critics of Dr. Walvoord’s view of the Rapture (and other interpretations a Rapture) are many. Barbara Rossing, Lutheran minister and author of The Rapture Exposed, claims,
“The majority of New Testament passages on which dispensationalists base the notion of Rapture concern either resurrection or Jesus’ second coming – neither of which is the same as the Rapture, despite dispensationalist’s claims.”
Paul Thigpen, a Protestant-turned-Catholic and author of The Rapture Trap, provides this sharp critique, “This novel, eccentric teaching only appeared late in Church history and has never been embraced by the great majority of believers, Catholic or otherwise. Neither ancient Christians, nor medieval Christians, nor even the founders of the major Protestant movements ever heard of the secret rapture doctrine. They knew of no invisible coming by Christ to catch believers up to heaven prior to His return to earth in clouds of glory. And when they wrote about that single, universally visible, glorious coming of the Lord, they often referred to the very same biblical passages that today’s secret rapture advocates claim must refer instead to an invisible snatching away.”
Many evangelicals are critical of the pre-tribulational Rapture as well. One well-known evangelical pastor and author, John Piper, comments on the Rapture and 1 Thess. 4:17 in this manner: “The word for ‘meeting’ the Lord in the air in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 (apantesin) is used in two other places in the New Testament: Matthew 25:6 and Acts 28:15. In both places it refers to a meeting in which people go out to meet a dignitary and then accompany him in to the place from which they came out. One of these, Matthew 25:6, is even a parable of the second coming and so a strong argument that this is the sense of the meeting here in 1 Thess. 4:17-that we rise to meet the Lord in the air and then welcome him to earth as king.”
Commenting on the “puzzling” and “bizarre” account of the Rapture as depicted in the Left Behind series, N.T. Wright states, “The New Testament, building on ancient biblical prophecy, envisages that the creator God will remake heaven and earth entirely, affirming the goodness of the old Creation but overcoming its mortality and corruptibility (e.g., Romans 8:18-27; Revelation 21:1; Isaiah 65:17, 66:22). When that happens, Jesus will appear within the resulting new world (e.g., Colossians 3:4; 1 John 3:2). Paul’s description of Jesus’ reappearance in 1 Thessalonians 4 is a brightly colored version of what he says in two other passages, 1 Corinthians 15:51-54 and Philippians 3:20-21: At Jesus’ “coming” or “appearing,” those who are still alive will be “changed” or “transformed” so that their mortal bodies will become incorruptible, deathless. This is all that Paul intends to say in Thessalonians, but here he borrows imagery–from biblical and political sources–to enhance his message. Little did he know how his rich metaphors would be misunderstood two millennia later.”
Such criticisms do not necessarily establish the strength or weakness of Dr. Walvoord’s view of the Rapture but they do demonstrate that the Dispensational Pre-tribulational view of the Rapture is not as commonly held as some within the circle are apt to think.
One the main criticisms of the Rapture is in regards to the way proponents attempt to distinguish between the Rapture and the second coming of Christ. Dr. Walvoord confirms that Matt. 24 contains a description of the second coming but argues that this is completely separate and distinct from the Rapture. Critics of the Rapture disagree. Professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, Dr. Ben Witherington III, claims that Matt. 24 and 1 Thessalonians 4 describe the same event: the second coming of Christ. The following is his comparison of the two passages:
The 2nd coming of Christ in 1 Thess. & Matt.24
Christ returns – 1 Thess. 4:16; Matt. 24:30
from heaven – 1 Thess. 4:16; Matt. 24:30
accompanied by angels – 1 Thess. 4:16; Matt. 24:31
with a trumpet of God – 1 Thess. 4:16; Matt. 24:31
believers gathered to Christ – 1 Thess. 4:17; Matt. 24:31; 40-41
in clouds – 1 Thess. 4:17; Matt. 24:30
time unknown – 1 Thess. 5:1-2; Matt. 24:36
coming like a thief – 1 Thess. 5:2, 4; Matt. 24:43
unbelievers unaware of coming judgment – 1 Thess. 5:3; Matt. 24:37-39
judgment like a mother’s birth pangs – 1 Thess. 5:3; Matt. 24:8
believers not deceived – 1 Thess. 5:4-5; Matt. 24:43
believers to be watchful – 1 Thess. 5:6; Matt. 24:37-39
warning v. drunkenness – 1 Thess. 5:7; Matt. 24:49
Continuing in his critique of the idea of a distinction between the Rapture and the second coming of Christ, Witherington states, “One of the real weaknesses in the Dispensational approach to texts such as 1 Thessalonians 4-5 is that on the one hand they want parousia to refer to the secret rapture of the church here and in 2 Thessalonians 2:1, while on the other hand they tend to concede that parousia refers to the second coming in this very same argument at 2 Thessalonians 2:8. But Paul everywhere always uses this term consistently when speaking of Jesus to refer to the second coming, an all too visible event.” As it so happens, Dr. Walvoord did indeed consider 2 Thess. 2:8 to be a reference to the second coming of Christ which Witherington singles out as an example of inconsistency in this matter.
Conclusions and Observations
It seems that Walvoord may have believed that his view of a separate coming of Christ to rapture living saints distinct from “the second coming of Christ” is obvious enough in passages such as 1 Thess. 4:17 that it was enough to assert or assume that this is so without providing sufficient exegetical evidence. For example, Walvoord states, “When some of the Thessalonians died, it raised the question of what would happen to them when the living were raptured. They apparently had the idea that the resurrection of the dead in Christ would not occur at the Rapture but would be sometime later. How much they understood about the coming Tribulation and the second coming of Christ is not clear in Thessalonians. When they asked Timothy to clear up this difficulty, he was unable to do so and brought this question, along with other theological questions, to Paul, and Paul answers them in 1 Thessalonians. The experience of the Thessalonian Christians make quite clear that they were expecting Christ to come at any time but did not anticipate going through the Tribulation because no mention is made of it.”
Walvoord seems to write this section as if the Thessalonians presupposed his understanding of the pre-tribulational Rapture. He claims in the above-mentioned quote that the Thessalonians were probably wondering what would happen to those who will be “raptured” and may have wondered if the resurrection of the dead in Christ would occur separately from “the Rapture” as if the Rapture were a commonly held belief of the believers at Thessalonica. He even seems to indicate that questions concerning the Rapture were part of the reason why Paul wrote this letter to the Thessalonians.
It does not appear to me that the Rapture can be found in the text of 1 Thessalonians apart from presupposing the existence of such a doctrine. If it is indeed impossible to discern the reality of the Rapture from this text then it appears that Walvoord, among many others, may have read his understanding of the Rapture into the passage as he attempted to explain the occasion of Paul’s teachings in 1 Thess. 4:13-18. This would be highly problematic for his view since it is this verse that Dr. Walvoord points to for clear teaching on the subject.
My study of the Rapture and the second coming of Christ is certainly not as extensive as that of a longtime Bible teacher such as Dr. Walvoord. However, based upon my study of the matter to date, it is my humble opinion that there is little to no evidence in Scripture for a coming of Christ to rapture believers from the earth that precedes and is distinct from the second coming of Christ. It is my understanding that Paul’s reference to the coming of Christ in 1 Thess. 4 is concerning the second coming of Christ.
 John F. Walvoord, The Prophecy Knowledge Handbook (Dallas: Dallas Seminary Press, 1990), 478.
 Ibid, 481.
 Ibid, 482.
 Ibid, 483.
 Ibid, 483.
 John F. Walvoord, Prophecy in the New Millennium: A Fresh Look at Future Events (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2001), 126-7.
 Walvoord, The Prophecy Knowledge Handbook, 484.
 Ibid, 484.
 Walvoord, Prophecy in the New Millennium: A Fresh Look at Future Events, 124.
 Barbara R. Rossing, The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2004), 31.
 Paul Thigpen, The Rapture Trap: A Catholic Response to “End Times” Fever (West Chester, PA: Ascension Press, 2001), 130.
 John Piper, “Definitions and Observations Concerning the Second Coming of Christ” (1987, accessed September 24, 2006); available here.
 John F. Walvoord, The Final Drama: Fourteen Keys to Understanding the Prophetic Scriptures (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1997), 134-5.
 Ben Witherington III, The Problem with Evangelical Theology: Testing the Exegetical Foundations of Calvinism, Dispensationalism, and Wesleyanism (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2005), 117.
 Ibid, 129.
 Walvoord, The Final Drama: Fourteen Keys to Understanding the Prophetic Scriptures, 31.
 Walvoord, Prophecy in the New Millennium: A Fresh Look at Future Events, 125.
[Originally posted at Pursuing Truth]