On 29 April, we published an article seeking your questions on Israel and Palestine, the current conflict, the Bible, or anything you think is related to this that might be answered by one of our Aotearoa Baptist Biblical Scholars.

Philip Church is a member of Royal Oak Baptist Church and a Senior Research Fellow in the School of Theology at Laidlaw College in Auckland. He has a PhD in New Testament and has taught Biblical Languages and Old and New Testament courses at Laidlaw for 15 years. In his retirement he has taught block courses in several countries in the Majority World. Philip has a longstanding interest in the Middle East and has travelled there several times, he has a particular interest in the Hebrews and the temple.

Thank you to those who sent in questions. To answer them, some questions have been conflated or dissected to respond more easily to what has been considered the underlying issue. Due to the number of questions, this will be published as instalments over the next few weeks. Not every question submitted will get a response. 

Click here for Part 1, published on 18 May 2024.

Click here for Part 2, published on 28 May 2024.

Click here for Part 3, published on 11 June 2024


In this article and the next, I will discuss four important aspects of what is called: premillennial dispensational eschatology. In this article, I look at the rapture and the great tribulation and in the next, I consider the possibility of a third temple in Jerusalem and the claim that God intends to save the world through Israel. Before I do that, however, I want to take a brief look at what I call dispensational hermeneutics. That is because premillennial dispensationalism is more than a theory about eschatology; it is a way of reading the Bible. (Dispensational Premillennialism was introduced in my Part 3 article.)

1.  What are Dispensational Hermeneutics

When I consider how to read the Bible I think of four “worlds.” These are the world above the text, the Holy Spirit who inspired the writers of the text and who illumines the mind of the interpreter; the world behind the text, the literary, social and historical context of the text in question; the world within the text, the words, the grammar and syntax and the genre; and the world in front of the text, that is the interpreter. This final world is important because I (an old white, western male with advanced theological degrees) read the Bible quite differently from my ten-year-old granddaughter, a Palestinian Christian, a messianic Jew or a Kenyan woman, all of whom approach the text with our presuppositions that influence our understanding. 

Dispensational readers have a somewhat different approach that begins with what is called “normal” or literal interpretation. One writer describes it like this:

The interpreter’s task is really quite simple. He must come to an understanding of … the … author’s intended meaning … The meaning of any biblical passage … resides in the text being examined and is determined by the author of the text, not by the interpreter. The interpreter’s function is to uncover by careful and diligent examination the meaning that the author intended to communicate to his original readers.[1]

This is called the “code” model of interpretation. Writers encode their thoughts in words and readers simply decode the words to reproduce the writers’ thoughts. Of course, this is simplistic, for reading is far more complex than that as 2,000 years of disagreement over how the New Testament is interpreted have shown, let alone another 1,000 years of Old Testament interpretation. It is just not that simple.[2]

For these readers, “normal” interpretation leads to a rigid distinction between Israel and the church, with Israel understood as God’s earthly people, and the church as God’s heavenly people. This means that Old Testament prophetic oracles of blessing for Israel apply to Israel alone and not to Christ and the church, and therefore await their fulfilment in the millennium (the millennium in this context is described in Part 3). Moreover, the logical conclusion of this understanding is the belief that the state of Israel has now inherited all those promises and has a divine right to the promised land, while the church’s inheritance is in heaven.[3] That this distinction overlooks such Scriptures as Ephesians 2:11–22, which shows that in Christ Jew and Gentile comprise “one new humanity in the place of the two” (v. 15) seems to be completely overlooked.

One other characteristic of dispensational hermeneutics will become evident in what follows. Dispensational readers often bring together texts from a variety of places to provide evidence for their position, sometimes reading them with gaps in the middle of paragraphs that are not immediately obvious to other readers.[4] While so-called “normal” interpretation is a stated methodology, and the rigid distinction between Israel and the church is a stated dogma (with the corollary that any who deny it are teaching replacement theology), the stringing together of seemingly disconnected texts is not, although it is presented as though it is perfectly valid. Barbara Rossing explains why this approach is necessary, 

The fact is that not one single biblical passage lays out the dispensationalists’ overarching chronology of Rapture followed by seven years of tribulation followed by Jesus’ return to earth. They have to piece this grand narrative together like stringing clothes on a clothesline.[5]

This will become evident in what follows.

2. What is the Rapture?

The “rapture” is found in 1 Thessalonians 4:13–17 (although I have not found a translation that uses the word). 

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died … For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will be with the Lord forever. 

Apparently, some of the Thessalonian believers were concerned about the fate of those of their number who had died, at the second coming. Paul explains that they would rise from the dead and that those who are still alive will be “caught up (“raptured”) … together with them to meet the Lord in the air.” That seems clear enough. The rapture is the name given to the idea that all the dead Christians as well as those who are alive when Jesus returns will be “raptured” to heaven.

This rapture is a key feature of premillennial dispensational eschatology and grows out of the belief that the church is God’s heavenly people. According to this scheme, the millennium will be preceded by the “great tribulation” and either at the beginning, the middle or the end of this seven-year tribulation believers will be caught up to heaven and remain there with Jesus until they return with him when he sets up his millennial kingdom and rules the world from Jerusalem for 1000 years. This rapture happens in secret, although it will soon become apparent when all the Christians disappear. Others will be “left behind”. The world will get worse and worse with the devil having been released from the bottomless pit and all Christian influence gone from society. 

Once the rapture has been established from this text, “normal” interpretation finds it in many other texts (think of the world in front of the text and the readers’ presuppositions in approaching the text). For example, there is said to be a seven-year gap in the middle of Titis 2:13 where the rapture is the “blessed hope” and “the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” happens seven years later after the great tribulation (that the raptured Christians have escaped).[6] Similarly, in Revelation 4:1 John sees heaven opened and hears a voice calling to him, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this” This invitation is equivalent to the rapture, and since the church is not mentioned after this in Revelation, it has been raptured to heaven. The believers watch from heaven as God unleashes the terrors of Revelation 6–19 on the earth.[7]

Two issues come to mind. First, the “cry of command … the archangel’s call and … the sound of God’s trumpet” (v. 16) do not sound very secret. Indeed, if God’s trumpet blast is anything like the trumpet blast at Sinai (Exod 19:16–19) it will be loud. Secondly, the text is about the “coming” of the Lord (v. 15). If he is “coming”, it makes little sense to imagine him doing a U-turn and returning to heaven. 

There is, however, an alternative reading. In the first century Greco-Roman world (the world behind the text), when a dignitary (or perhaps a returning victorious general – like Jesus who has won the victory over sin, death and hell) approached a city (the Greek word is parousia – the word for the “coming” of the Lord in v. 15) the citizens would go out to “meet” him (anaptēsis, v. 17) and accompany him back into the city.[8] Raymond Collins explains,

The lord’s arrival in a town, with military escort, was announced by a herald. A blast from a trumpet would announce the impending arrival. Perforce the inhabitants of the city would go out to meet the lord … Paul evokes the scene to create an impressive image of the coming of the Lord. The Lord himself will give the command to start the parade. The beginning of the parade will be announced with the archangel’s cry and a blast of the herald’s trumpet. The Lord will be accompanied by “all the saints,” the heavenly host.[9]

The idea of a “rapture” where the believers will be snatched away from heaven emerged in the early nineteenth century along with the idea of the “great tribulation.” Recent biblical scholarship has shown that this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the text that arises when it is not read against its historical and social context. The Thessalonian believers would have understood that Paul was describing what happens when Jesus “comes down from heaven” (v. 16) in terms that they were familiar with. There is no suggestion that he will return to heaven again. We don’t go out to meet Jesus and accompany him back to heaven (to escape the tribulation); we accompany him back to earth in his victory parade.

3. What about the Great Tribulation?

J. Dwight Pentecost writes,

The Tribulation is the seven-year period falling between the rapture of the Church and the second advent of Jesus Christ to the earth. It is the concluding period of Daniel’s prophecy of 70 weeks (Dan 9:24–27). The seven years are divided into two equal periods, the latter being called the Great Tribulation (Mt 24:21).

In Daniel 9:24–27, Daniel uses a scheme found elsewhere in Jewish apocalyptic literature to divide history into seven-year periods called “weeks (of years”). In Daniel 9:1–19, Daniel is praying for the people and as is usual in apocalyptic literature he has a vision in which he has an angelic guide (Gabriel v. 21) who describes a period of seventy weeks of years (9:24). In vv. 24–27 Gabriel tells him how these weeks would unfold. There would be seven weeks (49 years of exile) until the temple was rebuilt, and it would function for a further sixty-two weeks (vv. 24-25). Then comes the seventieth week, when

… an anointed one shall be cut off and shall have nothing, and the troops of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary. Its end shall come with a flood, and to the end there shall be war. Desolations are decreed. He shall make a strong covenant with many for one week, and for half of the week he shall make sacrifice and offering cease, and in their place shall be a desolating sacrilege until the decreed end is poured out upon the desolator. 

This seventieth week will be a disastrous time, culminating in “the desolating sacrilege,” usually understood as a reference to Antiochus Epiphanes desecrating the Jerusalem temple in 167 BC.[10]

Dispensationalist readings project this into the future (using a 2000-year gap somewhere in this quote). A “normal” hermeneutic explains that since Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD resulting in the cessation of sacrifice and offering, and since what Antiochus did preceded that, there must be more to come. The temple will need to be rebuilt before the tribulation so that it can be desecrated again and then destroyed![11]

Often Daniel 9:27 is combined with Daniel 12:1 which refers to “a time of anguish such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence.” These two verses are said to refer to the “great tribulation” (although Daniel does not use that precise expression). How we know this is that Daniel 12:1 and Matthew 24:21 are similar. 

Daniel 12:1

There shall be a time of anguish such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence.

Matthew 24:21

For at that time there will be great suffering,[12] such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be

Two other New Testament texts refer to “great tribulation.” In Rev 2:22, “great distress” is predicted for adulterers in the church in Thyatira, and in Revelation 7:1–13 John sees a multitude from every nation, clothed in white and standing before God’s throne and the Lamb and learns that they “have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (v. 14. NIV). Only in this verse does the expression refer to “the great tribulation” (with the definite article “the”).  While Pentecost does not reference this verse, Paige Patterson does in his Revelation commentary, connecting it with the great tribulation of Matthew 24:21.[13] A glance at Patterson’s treatment of Revelation 11:1–3 (pp. 238–45) shows Patterson’s dispensationalist credentials. Revelation 11:2 refers to a period of forty-two months and v. 3 to a period of 1,260 days. Patterson claims, 

the Bible speaks of a period known as the great tribulation. Elsewhere this is referenced as the “time of Jacob’s trouble.” This tribulation is said to be of seven years duration and is divided into two equal periods of three and one-half years, or 42 months, or 1,260 days, or time and times and half a time.[14]

According to Patterson Israel has returned to the land, the temple has been “constructed by the Jews in Jerusalem” and at the end of the forty-two months the events of Revelation 12 occur, “in which Israel is divested one more time of the land God provided for them.”[15] All this is conjecture, for the New Testament knows nothing of the return of Israel to the land in the last days and it knows nothing of the rebuilt temple. Patterson is reading the Old Testament as though the New Testament had never been written.

Revelation neither specifies when this “tribulation” happens, nor its duration. Neither Matthew nor Revelation ever refer to seven years of tribulation, which is particularly significant for Revelation, which uses the number seven, fifty-five times, but never mentions any seven-year period for anything. With Gregory Beale, I suggest that “this tribulation does not occur only at the very end of history. The trial has already been set in motion in John’s day (see on 1:9; 2:9–10, 22 … 21 of Paul’s 23 uses of θλῖψις [“thlipsis, tribulation”] refer to a present reality).”[16] Throughout the entire history of Christianity, believers in Jesus have suffered persecution and numerous faithful martyrs have lost their lives for the gospel. In Revelation 7, these are the innumerable, white-robed multitude standing before God’s throne crying out in a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne and to the Lamb!” (7:10). 

The “great tribulation” has been invented along with the rapture by ingeniously combining texts drawn from various parts of the Bible. The danger is that it creates an expectation of violence and warfare leading to the Battle of Armageddon. When we approach the current conflict in Gaza with this in our minds it is not difficult to imagine that these (fictional) events are not far away.


Previous questions answered

Click here for Part 1, published on 18 May 2024.

1. What is the relationship between the Old and New Testaments?

2. How should we read the Old Testament now that the New Testament has been written?

3. How are we to read the Old Testament Prophets?

4. Who are the People of God?

5. Are the citizens of Israel to be identified with the Israelites of the Old Testament?

6. Has God rejected his People (Romans 11:1)?

Click here for Part 2, published on 28 May 2024.

1. What is Replacement Theology or Supersessionism?

2. What does Paul mean when he says, “all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:26)?

3. What does the Bible say about the Promised Land?

Click here for Part 3, published on 11 June 2024

1. What is the significance of Jerusalem?

2. What is Zionism?

3. What is the Millennium?

4. What about Dispensational Premillennialism?


Endnotes

[1] Thomas Baurain, “A Short Primer on Hermeneutics,” Journal of Dispensational Theology 10, no. 31 (2006): 43. 

[2] There is no space to develop this here. I have discussed it more fully in “Dispensational Christian Zionism: A Strange but Acceptable Aberration or a Deviant Heresy?” Westminster Theological Journal 71 (2009): 375–98. 

[3] For a further discussion of this readers may wish to go back and look again at Part 1 of this series.

[4] One such gap is 2000 years placed between Acts 2:18 and v. 19, with vv. 17–18 referring to Pentecost and vv. 19–20 to the great tribulation.

[5] Rossing, Rapture Exposed, loc. 2884.

[6] Barbara R. Rossing, The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation (Kindle ed; Boulder, CO: Westview, 2004), loc. 667–86. This reading breaks a fundamental rule of Greek grammar.

[7] See Rossing, Rapture Exposed, loc. 727. For a dispensational view of Revelation 4:1–4 see Paige Patterson, Revelation, NAC 39 (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2012), 148–50.

[8] This word also appears in Matt 25:6 when the young women went out to meet the approaching bridegroom and in Acts 28:15 when the believers in Rome went out to meet Paul. 

[9] Raymond E. Collins, The Power of Images in Paul (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2008), 29, cited by Nijay K. Gupta, 1-2 Thessalonians: A New Covenant Commentary, New Covenant Commentary Series (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2016), 97.

[10] What Antiochus did is disputed. See the discussion in John J. Collins, Daniel: A Commentary on the Book of Daniel (Hermeneia. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1993), 357–58.

[11] Rossing, Rapture Exposed, loc. 1083.

[12] The words “great suffering” in the NRSVUE appear in the KJV, NKJV and ESV as “great tribulation.” This is the “time of anguish” of Daniel 12:1 since both Matthew 24:21 and Daniel 12:1 (Greek) use the word thlipsis (anguish, suffering).

[13] Patterson, Revelation, 203. For Patterson’s chronology of so-called “end times” see p. 240.

[14] Patterson, Revelation, 240. The “time of Jacob’s trouble” is a reference to Jeremiah 30:7, indicating that Patterson thinks Jeremiah was referring to the “great tribulation.” 

[15] Patterson, Revelation, 240.

[16] G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 434. See also David E. Aune, Revelation 6–16, WBC 52B (Dallas: Word, 1998), 474, who writes, “It appears that while ‘the great tribulation’ belonged to a discrete series of events in Jewish eschatological expectation, early Christians regarded their frequent experience of persecution and opposition (see Rev 1:9; 2:9–10; Matt 10:16–23; Acts 8:1) as part of this eschatological period of tribulation presaging the end (Mark 13:9–20 = Matt 24:9–22 = Luke 21:12–24; Did. 16:5).”


Photo: Screenshot from Google Maps, accessed 28 April 2024.

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