Imminence: Does the Bible Teach an Any-Moment Rapture?
Editor's Note: I am acutely aware of the potential emotional implications related to a consideration of the timing of the Rapture. Pretribulational Rapturism and Imminence are doctrines tenaciously held by many of God's choicest servants. I have no desire to be divisive, but must share what I believe to be paramount biblical truth for this crucial moment of history. The warning of James, the half-brother of our Lord, has not gone unnoticed: "My brethren, be not many teachers, knowing that we shall receive the greater judgment [be judged more strictly]" (James 3:1). If, in the addressing of this issue, I inappropriately offend any of God's children, I sincerely apologize.
Almost two thousand years ago the Son of God left Heaven's glory and came to earth to become the Son of Man. He who had eternally existed with the Father and Spirit in perfect unbroken fellowship, took on human form and became a man. His miraculous birth, sinless life, substitutionary death, bodily resurrection, glorious ascension, and enthronement at the right hand of His Father are all brilliant facets related to the first coming of Christ.
The implications of that direct intervention of God in the affairs of men can neither be fully fathomed nor, with the greatest of oratory and literary skills, overstated by mortal man.
The Lord's first coming was the noon hour of at least 6,000 years of human history. Astoundingly, but not surprisingly, as the Jewish prophets foretold, God was dwelling in human form among His creation. Men could see the visible Son and know precisely what the invisible Father was like, for Jesus was "the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person" (Hebrews 1:3).
Only one event, in the still-to-unfold future that awaits mankind, will be able to compare in significance with the first coming of the Son of Man. That event can be succinctly summed up in four words: Jesus is coming again.
Among the major purposes associated with the Second Coming will be the consummation of salvation for those who have died in Christ ("the dead in Christ shall rise first" [l Thessalonians 4:16]); deliverance of the living who have trusted Christ as Savior ("Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them" [l Thessalonians 4:17]); the judgment of the wicked during the day of the Lord ("For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night. For when they shall say, Peace and safety, then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child, and they shall not escape" [l Thessalonians 5:2-31); and the establishment of Christ's rule over the earth ("The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever" [Revelation 11:15]).
The resurrection of the dead, the final redemption of the righteous living, the judgment of the wicked, and the introduction of a golden age, then, are major themes related to Christ's return.
Is the Return of Christ Imminent?
For those who believe and honor God's Word, the fact of the return of Christ to earth is beyond debate. Concerning that return, a significant number of Bible-believing Christians believe the Bible teaches that Christ's return will be premillennial – that is, at His return He will personally establish a litera1, thousand-year kingdom on the earth. And, with that position, this writer strongly concurs.
However, there has been considerable, spirited debate with regard to the seven-year period (often referred to as the Tribulation Period, or the seventieth week of Daniel) immediately preceding Christ's physical return to the earth and its relationship to the timing of the Rapture. Some contend that the Rapture of the Church will occur prior to the commencement of that seven-year period, or pretribulationally.
Intimately associated with the pretribulational view of the Rapture is the belief in imminence. Imminence is commonly expressed by the concept of an any-moment Rapture. It is sometimes voiced with the sentiment, "I'm looking for the upper Taker (Christ), not the undertaker (the Antichrist)."
A number of Second Coming hymns suggest imminence in their lyrics. Leila Morris wrote,
Jesus is coming to earth again –
And in the same vein, George Whitcomb wrote,
Jesus may come today –
Many outstanding seminaries, Bible colleges, missionary agencies, and churches include Imminence in their doctrinal statement.
A large number of those who hold to a pretribulational and imminent return of Christ view Imminence as an important but not a divisive doctrine. They give genuine latitude to those holding divergent views on the chronology of the Second Coming. Others, however, have "set" Pretribulational Rapturism "in concrete," and in such circles to even raise genuine questions concerning Imminence is to incur wrath and to be held suspect.
Amazingly, a doctrine which was virtually unknown in America 120 years ago has now become, for some, a fundamental of the faith. Of course, the bottom line – the final arbiter in every spiritual debate – is to be the Word of God; never tradition, church dogma, or human preference.
The Origin and Early Definitions of Imminence
Some writers have attempted to anchor Pretribulational Rapturism and its handmaiden, Imminence, in the rock of antiquity and the early church. It has been suggested that extant historical documents show that the early church believed in an any-moment pretribulational Rapture. In point of fact, quotations from the early church fathers suggest that (1) they believed that Christ could return in their lifetime, and (2) that His return would be preceded by a period of difficulty. But in no sense did they teach that the Rapture was pretribulational or imminent.
A review of Ante-Nicene writings overwhelmingly substantiates the reality of this statement. Neither the writings of Clement of Rome (A.D. 30-100), "The Epistle to Barnabas" (A.D. 130), "The Shepherd of Hermas" (A.D. 150), "The Didache" (A.D. 150), Ignatius (A.D. 50- 115), Polycarp (A.D. 70-167), Papias (A.D. 80-163), Pothinus (A.D. 87-177), Justyn Martyr (A.D. 100-168), Melito of Sardis (A.D. 100-170), Hegisippus (A.D. 130-190), Tatian (A.D. 130-190), Irenaeus (A.D. 140-202), Tertullian (A.D. 150-220), Hippolytus (A.D. 160-240), Cyprian (A.D. 200-258), Commodian (A.D. 200-270), Nepos (A.D. 230-280), Coracion (A.D. 230-280), Victorinus (A.D. 240-303), Methodius (A.D. 250-311), or Lactantius (A.D. 240-330) lend support to the validity of a pretribulation rapture.1
John Sproule, writing in defense of Pretribulational Rapturism, nonetheless with candor and integrity, noted concerning Imminence:
One of the recognized deans of pretribulational eschatology refers to imminency as the heart of pretribulationism. Yet he is able to muster only a few vague quotations from the Early Church Fathers plus a few debatable scriptures (John 14:1-3; 1 Thessalonians 1:10, 13-18; 5:6; and 1 Corinthians 1:7) to support his statement.2
Sproule goes on to write:
Pretribulationism can ill afford to rest on the shaky foundation of traditionalism and eisegetical [reading into the text what is not there] statements. If its [i.e., pretribulationism's] "heart" is a debatable and inductively determined doctrine of imminency then, perhaps, an exegetical "heart transplant" may be in order.3
Far from having its roots in the early church, Pretribulational Rapturism and an any-moment Rapture can trace its origin back to John Darby and the Plymouth Brethren in the year 1830. Some scholars, seeking to prove error by association, have attempted (perhaps unfairly) to trace its origin back two years earlier to a charismatic, visionary woman, named Margaret MacDonald.4 In any case, neither its recent origin nor its source proves or disproves its correctness. But if Pretribulational Rapturism is used for a badge of fellowship and orthodoxy, one is faced with the perplexing question of what to do with the millions of godly believers who, for almost eighteen hundred years, did not hold to Pretribulational Rapturism. Among them are heroes of the faith like John Wesley, Charles Wesley, Charles Spurgeon, Matthew Henry, John Knox, John Huss, William Carey, John Calvin, Isaac Newton, George Whitfield, A. B. Simpson, George Mueller, John Newton, Jonathan Edwards, John Wycliffe, John Bunyan, and multitudes more. Would these men be spurned today because they were not pretribulational?
The pretribulational view of Christ's return made its way from England to America in the 1870s and with it, unfortunately, came friction and division. The Scofield Reference Bible (which has helped millions of people in their personal Bible study) made pretribulational teaching a major facet of its 1917 revised edition. Untold multitudes became pretribulational as a result of Scofield's notes which, because they were attached to his reference Bible, became highly authoritative in the minds of many.
It was the Niagara Bible Conference, however, which initially spearheaded the growth of Pretribulational Rapturism and the concept of an any-moment Rapture in America. In 1878, the Conference adopted a 14-point doctrinal statement. The fourteenth section dealing with the return of Christ stated: "This personal and premillennial advent is the blessed hope set before us in the Gospel for which we should be constantly looking."5 This was a broad statement which could be embraced by all premillenarians. However, later that same year, The First General American Bible and Prophetic Conference (closely aligned with the Niagara Conference) in New York City passed five resolutions. In Article 3, they went beyond the Niagara statement. Their resolution stated: "This second coming of the Lord is everywhere in the scriptures represented as imminent, and may occur at any moment.6 Debate on the interpretation of the meaning of imminence followed. Some argued that imminence meant that signs could be fulfilled and that Christ could return within the lifetime of any individual generation of believers.7 This view of imminence could better be described as expectancy. It conveyed two facts: (1) Christ could return in any generation, and (2) signs could precede His coming. If the word could in point two were changed to will, their statement would reflect precisely the view of this article. A second group argued that imminence meant that the coming of Christ was possible at any hour.8
It was the position of this latter group which, in the years that followed, dominated pretribulational thinking.
With the passing of time, the definition of imminence was more closely defined. John R. Rice wrote:
Christ's coming is imminent. That means that Jesus may come at any moment. That means that there is no other prophesied event which must occur before Christ's coming. Nothing else needs to happen before Jesus may come. No signs need precede it. Jesus may come today.9
Any moment – no prophesied event must occur – nothing else needs to happen – it could be today; these are the points Rice emphasizes.
John Sproule, in a context of taking issue with posttribulationalist Robert Gundry's definition of imminence, wrote:
More representative of the pretribulational concept of imminency is the belief that, without qualification, Christ can return for His Church at any moment and that no predicted event will intervene before that return.10
In this definition, the emphasis is changed from no prophesied event must occur to no prophesied event will intervene before Christ's return.
It is one thing to speak of the Rapture as imminent and mean by that that Christ could come in one's lifetime and signs can precede that coming. It is another thing altogether to define imminent as meaning that Christ could return at any moment, that His return is signless, and that no prophecies will intervene before He returns.
Is Imminence a Biblical Doctrine?
It has already been noted that there is no historical evidence to demonstrate that the early church believed in an any-moment Rapture. (It should be added, that fact is in marked contrast to the overwhelming evidence that the early church was premillennial.) In fact, biblical statements preclude the early church from believing in imminence. The Gospel had to be preached throughout the world before Christ could return (Acts 1:8). For the early church, that precluded an any-moment Rapture. Peter was to live to be an old man (John 21:18-19). For the early church, that precluded an any-moment Rapture. The Temple was to be destroyed before Christ returned (Matthew 24:l-3). For the early church, that precluded an any-moment Rapture.
Some, attempting to circumvent this very real dilemma, have suggested that after those events were fulfilled the Church began to believe in imminence. Not only is there no valid evidence for that reasoning, but it continues to contradict Scripture.
Based upon Daniel 9:27 and the prophet's words, "he shall confirm the covenant with many for one week," pretribulationists have historically and continuously insisted that the Antichrist will make a covenant with Israel to protect her for seven years (the seventieth week of the Book of Daniel). It is that event which triggers what is commonly referred to as the Tribulation Period. But from the defeat of the Jewish nation in A.D. 70 until the emergence of the modern State of Israel on May 14, 1948, no Jewish nation or representative government existed. Hal Lindsey has written,
It would have been impossible for the Antichrist to sign a covenant of protection with a non-existent nation. An any-moment Rapture, therefore, was not possible before the modern State of Israel was resurrected out of the ashes of the Second World War. Israel could have become a nation during any generation – but the Rapture could not have preceded that event.
Above all other issues, the fact remains that there is not one verse of Scripture that teaches imminence, if by imminence it is meant that Christ's return is signless, any-moment, and without the possibility of fulfilled prophecies preceding it. The student of the Word will search in vain for exegetical evidence to support imminency. The fact that men are to "wait for," "expect," "look for," "keep awake," "be free from excess," "be alert," (and similar phrases) does not substantiate the claim that no prophesied event can occur before the Rapture. A chart listing verses that demonstrate that fact follows:
If church history and the New Testament do not support an any-moment, signless, no-prophesied events-can-occur-first concept of the Rapture; from where did such a concept come, and how did it grow to dominate much of the conservative Bible-believing, evangelical church?
Pretribulationists have rightly understood that the Book of Daniel provides the backbone of prophetic interpretation; that at the end of Daniel's sixty-ninth prophetic week the Messiah (Christ) would be cut off (Daniel 9:26). They also correctly understood that an indefinite period of time intervened between the sixty-ninth and seventieth week.12 Coupled with that was the belief that Israel's prophetic time clock will again commence when the seventieth week is initiated with the signing of the covenant between the Antichrist and Israel. Of necessity, for pretribulationism to be correct, the Rapture must occur before God's prophetic time clock begins again with the seventieth week of Daniel. Pretribulationism requires a signless, any-moment, imminent Rapture of the Church. Without imminence, pretribulationism is dead. Or, put another way, if Pretribulational Rapturism could be exegetically proven, Imminence would be demonstrated to be a logical corollary. Imminence would be a necessary outgrowth of a proven pretribulational Rapture, but an unproven concept of imminence cannot be used to prove pretribulationism. Here is a classic illustration of putting the cart before the horse, and it is routinely done in defense of Pretribulational Rapturism. The battle cry is sometimes voiced this way: Christ can come for the Church at any moment. Prophetic signs cannot occur. Therefore, the Rapture must be pretribulational.
Pretribulational rapturists, with few exceptions, believe that the Day of the Lord commences with the Rapture of the Church. The Scofield Reference Bible is typical of this position. It teaches that the Day of the Lord will commence with the translation (Rapture) of the Church.13 However, since the Day of the Lord is a period of direct, divine wrath upon the earth (Joel 1:15, 2:l-2, 10-11, 30-31; Isaiah 2:12-21; Zephaniah 1:14-2:3; 1 Thessalonians 5:2-4), and since Paul taught that believers are "not appointed . . . to wrath" (1 Thessalonians 5:9), it is convenient for pretribulational rapturists to commence the Day of the Lord with the Rapture of the Church. Doing so, however, has created monumental problems for the belief in an any-moment, no-prophesied-event-can-occur-before-the-Rapture position. Because of space restrictions, a few of these problems can only be briefly mentioned.14
First: The Bible makes it clear that cosmic disturbance must precede the Day of the Lord. The prophet Joel wrote:
Second: There remains a word from the last of the Old Testament prophets concerning that future day. It is a message that holds out some hope. Before the Day of the Lord begins, God will send a messenger to call the nation of Israel to repentance. Malachi, God's spokesman about four hundred years before Christ, recorded:
Behold, I will send you Elijah, the prophet, before the coming of the great and' terrible day of the LORD; And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse (Malachi 4:5-6).
Third: In the clearest possible way, the apostle Paul notes two events which must precede the Day of the Lord. There must be (1) the apostasy and (2) the revealing of the man of sin in the Temple of God. Paul wrote:
The Word of God clearly teaches that cosmic disturbance must precede the Day of the Lord, that Elijah must appear before the Day of the Lord, and that the apostasy and revealing of the man of sin must occur before the Day of the Lord. Since pretribulationism states that the Day of the Lord starts at the Rapture, the concept of an any-moment, no prophesied-event-will-occur-first position is biblically impossible to sustain.
Expectancy Not Imminency
Many believers within the early church had either seen Christ during His incarnation or known fellow-believers who had known Him. Consequently, Christ's life, death, burial, and resurrection were not abstract issues of theology – they were vibrant realities. His promise of personal return was dominant in their thinking. Their Lord was coming again in power and glory. Things would be different when that occurred. God, not Rome, would be the victor. Christ, not the emperor, would reign. Righteousness, not wickedness, would be the order of the day. Unlike today, the heart of the Apostolic Age burned with the prospect of their Sovereign's return. They knew full well that the Church Age had commenced. The apostle Paul had revealed that fact (Ephesians 3:4-6). But they had absolutely no concept of its duration. It is easy for believers in the twenty first century to look back at two thousand years of church history, but the first century church had no basis for anticipating that kind of extended period of time between their own day and the return of Christ. They believed that their Savior could return in their lifetime, and their lives revolved around the expectation of that event.
That expectancy can be seen in Paul's first epistle to the Thessalonians. He wrote:
With the use of the personal pronoun we in the phrase, "we who are alive and remain," Paul clearly includes himself among those who could be living at the time of Christ's return. In his second epistle to the Thessalonians, he emphasized the same truth. He wrote:
The adjective our in the phrase "our gathering together unto him" again demonstrates the apostle's expectancy of Christ's return.
A score of verses teach the Second Coming of Christ. All are consistent with the thesis that Christ could return in any generation. Among those verses are the following:
Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Savior, Jesus Christ (Timothy 2:13).
So that ye come behind in no gift, waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 1:7).
For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we look for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ (Philippians 3:20).
So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation (Hebrews 9:28).
And to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, who delivered us from the wrath to come (1 Thessalonians 1:10).
Expectancy – yes; imminency – no.
There simply are no verses in the Bible which teach that Christ's return can occur at any moment, is signless, and that no prophesied events will precede it – an absolute necessity to sustain pretribulationism.
What the Word of God does teach is that every generation should be living with the expectation that Christ could return in its lifetime. That fact should be so real, that expectation so conspicuous, that it becomes a catalyst for holy living.
But, the generation which enters the seventieth week of Daniel will know that Christ's return is near. They will know precisely, because signs will be given to that generation. The Lord taught, "Now learn a parable of the fig tree: When its. branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is near" (Matthew 24:32). They did not know the hour or day when summer would begin, but they did know the general time period. For the Jewish person of the first century, the fig tree was a sign of approximation. When its branch became tender and put forth leaves, one knew that summer was getting close. That was a non-debatable fact. And then, using the parable, the Lord taught this truth: "So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it [My return] is near, even at the doors" (Matthew 24:33).
The things that indicated that Christ's return was near had just been revealed by the Lord in Matthew 24:3-28 in answer to the disciples' question. They had asked, "And what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the age?" Those things are (1) the emergence of Antichrist, (2) war generated by the Antichrist, (3) famine as a direct result of the war, (4) pestilence because of the resultant unsanitary conditions, (5) martyrdom of some who will not submit to the mark of the Antichrist, and (6) cosmic disturbance. These events will indicate that the Rapture is near. Like the fig tree, they will be signs of Christ's return. They will not indicate the precise hour or the day, but the general time period.
These signs of His coming cannot possibly have reference to Christ's physical return to the earth at the end of the seventieth week as some contend. That event will occur precisely three and one-half years (or 1,260 days) after the abomination of desolation occurs at the midpoint of the seventieth week. The precise day of His physical return will be known.
The coming of the Lord for His Church can best be described by the word expectancy. Jesus can come during any generation of history, but only those who are alive when the seventieth week of Daniel commences will know that the Lord's return is near. They will not know the hour or the day but they will know the general time period because signs will precede His coming. That is the significance of the Lord's teaching, "Verily I say unto you, This generation [the generation that enters the seventieth week] shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled" (Matthew 24:34).
THE CHURCH WILL ENTER THE SEVENTIETH WEEK
God never exempts His children from the normal and natural difficulties of a sinful unregenerate world. The destruction of Sodom was God's work – so He told Lot to get out of the city. The universal flood was His judgment – so He told Noah to get into the ark. The difficulties of the first part (the first six seals) of the seventieth week of Daniel are the result of the emergence of the Antichrist and the rebellion of unregenerate men against God. From those events the Church is not exempt. She will be exempted, however, and raptured before God's wrath commences with the opening of the seventh seal (Revelation 6:17; 8:l).
Therefore, it must be concluded that the Church has yet before her a period of great difficulty related to the activities of Antichrist before her final deliverance.15 No normal person enjoys persecution, and the prospect of entering an unprecedentedly difficult period of time (the seventieth week of Daniel) is not a pleasant prospect. Understanding that fact should not cause God's people to recoil in fear and intimidation; it should be a call to holiness and preparation.
The Church is the Bride of Christ, and the Bride Groom would never harm His bride. The Bible teaches that He does not – He raptures her before His wrath against the wicked commences.
The first part of the seventieth week is not the wrath of God. It is a period of time when the Antichrist will arise; he will deceive many; he will enter the temple erected for the glory of God; he will demand the worship from men that should be directed to the true Bridegroom alone. In that day, the true Bridegroom will be under attack. A false lover will seek to capture the hearts of men.
It would not be comely for the Bride to absent herself during such an hour of history. A true and courageous Bride will want to remain, fight, and give her life in martyrdom, if need be, to condemn the false lover and tell the world that Jesus Christ alone is the true Lover of her soul.
Nearing the end of His life, and anticipating the approach and anguish of Calvary, the Lord asked three of His disciples to watch and pray with Him. They could have been of great help – an encouragement to the Savior in His time of need. However, when the Lord returned from His awesomely difficult time in the Garden of Gethsemane, He found His disciples asleep. The first Gospel records it this way: "And he cometh unto the disciples, and findeth them asleep, and he saith unto Peter, What, could ye not watch with me one hour?" (Matthew 26:40). Gethsemane means olive press, for in that garden olives were squeezed to produce olive oil – and in that garden the Lamb of God was squeezed as he anticipated that which was before Him, and He "sweat . . . great drops of blood."
He desired the support of His disciples in an hour of great need, but they did not give it.
During the seventieth week of Daniel, the Lord will need and want a courageous Bride to stand for Him and speak of His exquisite perfection as the gates of Hell are arrayed against His character through the Antichrist who will be directly empowered by Satan (Revelation 13:4). Will the Church, His bride, be asleep, having been convinced of an any-moment, signless, imminent Rapture? Will she have become so complacent and worldly that her only concern will be her well-being and escape rather than the glory of the Bridegroom? Will she neglect the oft-repeated warnings to be ready, watching, and expectant?
The apostle Paul taught an important principle which the church in America would do well to be reminded of: "If we suffer, we shall also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us" (2 Timothy 2:12). This could be the generation that will enter the seventieth week of Daniel. Some of us may be called upon to suffer even to the extent of martyrdom. If we are not willing to make such a sacrifice for our sovereign Lord, we are not deserving of being called His disciple.
Jesus is coming again. The dead in Christ will be raised, the living caught up - both to meet the Lord in the air and be forever with Him. The true believer just can't lose – Jesus is coming again.
Imminence: Does the Bible Teach an Any-Moment Rapture?