CONTRASTING VIEWS OF
II THESSALONIANS 2
II Thessalonians 2 contains some statements regarding the “Day of the Lord” that possibly could settle some debates concerning the timing of the Rapture/Resurrection. In verse 2:2 Paul admonishes the church not to be shaken by false messages that they had received. Those messages stated “that the day of the Lord has come.” (ESV) Paul corrects this false teaching by explaining “that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed…” (verse 3, ESV) As one would expect, this passage is hotly debated by scholars who hold different views of the timing of the Rapture. In this article I shall describe the viewpoints of Robert Gundry, John Walvoord, and Dwight Pentecost on this Scripture. Gundry is a Dispensationalist, but he advocates that the Rapture/Resurrection will take place at Christ’s Second Coming at the end of the Tribulation (Post-Tribulation Rapture/Resurrection). Walvoord and Pentecost are Dispensationalists with the usual understanding of a Pre-Tribulation Rapture/Resurrection.
(1) DWIGHT PENTECOST’S VIEW
I shall only refer to Pentecost in this section, so that the back-and-forth between Walvoord and Gundry can be concentrated on. The following is Pentecost’s summary of the issues. One will find that he and Walvoord are in close agreement. Pentecost’s views are as follows:
The Thessalonian Christians were concerned for fear that the rapture had already taken place and they were in the day of the Lord. The persecutions which they were enduring, as referred to in the first chapter, had given them a basis for this erroneous consideration. Paul writes to show them in verse 3 that the day of the Lord could not take place until there was a departure. Whether this departure is a departure from the faith or a departure of the saints from the earth, as already mentioned in verse 1, is beside the point here. Second, he reveals there was to be the manifestation of the man of sin, or the lawless one, further described in Revelation 13. Paul’s argument in verse 7 is that although the mystery of iniquity was operative in his day, that is, the lawless system that was to culminate in the person of the lawless one manifesting itself, yet this lawless one could not be manifested until the Restrainer was taken out of the way. In other words, some One is preventing the purpose of Satan from coming to culmination and He will keep on performing this ministry until He is removed (vv. 7-8). Explanations as to the person of this Restrainer such as human government, law, the visible church will not suffice, for they will all continue in a measure after the manifestation of this lawless one. While this is essentially an exegetical problem, it would seem that the only One who could do such a restraining ministry would be the Holy Spirit…However, the indication here is that as long as the Holy Spirit is resident within the church, which is His temple, this restraining work will continue and the man of sin cannot be revealed. It is only when the church, the temple, is removed that this restraining ministry ceases and lawlessness can produce the lawless one. It should be noted that the Holy Spirit does not cease His ministries with the removal of the church, nor does he cease to be omnipresent, with her removal, but the restraining ministry does cease.
Thus, this ministry of the Restrainer…requires the Pretribulation rapture of the church, for Daniel 9:27 reveals that that lawless one will be manifested at the beginning of the week. (Pentecost, 204-205)
(2) UNDERSTANDING THE THESSALONIAN ERROR
Walvoord introduces the chapter by discussing the false teaching that the Thessalonians had been exposed to. This teaching is mentioned by Paul, who urges the church “not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come.” (II Thessalonians 2:2, ESV) Walvoord characterizes this error as teaching that they were “already in the day of the Lord.” Walvoord states the issue this way because he understands that they were IN the Tribulation period, a condition equal (for him) to being IN the Day of the Lord. Gundry (121), incidentally, understands the error in the much the same way.
Walvoord believes that the false teaching included the idea that the church would go through the Tribulation. He writes that it is widely known that this was taught in the second century, but people miss the fact that this “posttribulationalism” was one of the “heresies” that Paul dealt with. The following are his comments:
It is most important to observe that Paul labeled this a false doctrine and urged the Thessalonians not to be deceived by this teaching. The passage clearly implies that Paul had taught them that they would not enter the day of the Lord and that the Rapture would come before the final persecutions of the saints. Paul here was refuting this early form of posttribulationism.
It is not immediately apparent how Paul “clearly implied” that they would not enter the Day of the Lord (the Tribulation, for Walvoord). I shall explain his reasoning later. Do note that Walvoord uses the phrase “clearly implied” and not “clearly stated,” for Paul did not state that in this or any other of his epistles.
Gundry proposes what he believes was the nature of the false teaching, as follows (121):
· The Day of the Lord will include the Tribulation.
· They had entered the Tribulation.
· The Second Coming was in the immediate future, so many of them quit working and were “fanatical.”
(3) THE CHURCH’S STATE OF MIND
Walvoord believes this situation of the Thessalonians creates a “real problem” for those who advocate a Post-Tribulation Rapture. The problem is that, if the church were in the beginning of the Day of the Lord, then the Rapture would be approaching and they should be rejoicing. Instead, as Walvoord puts it, they were in a “panic.” He believes the panic was the disparity between what Paul had taught them and what the false teachers were teaching them.
Gundry (114) frames this challenge from the Pre-Tribulationists in the following way:
· The church had been convinced that the “Day of the Lord” had come.
· This meant that they thought they were in the Tribulation (according to those who believed the Day of the Lord includes the Tribulation).
· If they believed that the Rapture/Resurrection would take place at the end of the Tribulation (as Gundry believes), then they should be fast approaching that event.
· Thus, they should be rejoicing, and not be troubled.
He believes that the reasoning I have outlined above sets up “false alternatives, joy versus sorrow.” Rather, Gundry terms the condition of the church as “agitation.” (114) He maintains that the church was in a state of fanatical excitement and disorder, in anticipation of the Rapture, to the degree that they quit working (121). He refers to Paul’s exhortation to work in 3:6-15 as evidence that people in the church had quit working as an “outgrowth of the agitation” brought on by the prospect that the Second Coming was coming soon (114).
(4) PAUL’S RESPONSE TO THE ERROR
Walvoord frames Paul’s response to the false teaching that they were in Day of the Lord (Tribulation) in the following way: Paul explained that “the Thessalonians were wrong in thinking that they were already in the day of the Lord because there was a total lack of evidence for it.” The “evidences” that were lacking were the apostasy and the revelation of the Man of Lawlessness (verse 2:3). (I call these the “Signal Events.”) “Both of these would be necessary before the day of the Lord could really ‘come.’”
Gundry responds to this in the following way (119-120):
· The Pre-Tribulationists say that Paul used the absence of the Signal Events (apostasy and Antichrist) to demonstrate that the Tribulation was not taking place. This fact would reassure the Thessalonians that the Rapture had not taken place.
· Gundry answers this, first, by saying that the Pre-Tribulation Rapture is nowhere expressed.
· Second, he says that pointing out that the Signal Events had not occurred “exceeds what he [Paul] needed to write,” whereas “he would merely have needed to remind them” of the Pre-Tribulation Rapture
· Third, Paul does NOT say that the absence of the Signal Events proved the Tribulation was not taking place. He DOES SAY that the Signal Events will occur before the Day of the Lord (verse 2:3).It is critical to decide who understands verse 2:3 correctly. The difference is subtle, but is a profound difference. I dealt with this issue in a previous article. The English translations are consistent in the meaning they convey: There are two things (the Signal Events) that must happen BEFORE the Day of the Lord. Walvoord’s interpretation is an incorrect understanding, for he is saying the Day of the Lord will not be fully manifested until the Signal Events occur. This means he is not grasping what Paul is saying about the timing of the Day of the Lord. Paul is saying that the Day of the Lord comes after the Signal Events. This would put that Day beginning well into the Tribulation period or, as Gundry believes, at the end of that period.
Gundry says that Paul corrected the misconception of being in the Day of the Lord by explaining that the Signal Events must precede the Day of the Lord. This explanation strongly implied the correction of the second misconception—that they were in the Tribulation period; since it was obvious that the Signal Events had not occurred, then the Thessalonians could be assured that they were not in the Tribulation period. Moreover, without the Signal Events, the Day of the Lord and the Second Coming were not imminent. Therefore, in 3:6-15, Paul’s exhortation to work and orderly living brings the correction into everyday life.
(1) GUNDRY DEBATES BY USING HYPOTHETICAL ARGUMENTS
Gundry devotes considerable space in seeking to demonstrate the fallacy of the Pre-Tribulation Rapture by considering logical consequences. These arguments are difficult to follow. Quite frankly, Walvoord misses the point of these arguments, not recognizing that Gundry temporarily assumes the Pre-Tribulation Rapture hypothesis. In each case, Gundry is explaining how the church might come to the conclusions it did under that hypothesis and why the scenario creates logical problems.
In the first argument, Gundry assumes the church had two preconditions in their teaching (118):
· They were unaware of the Pre-Tribulation Rapture teaching.
· They understood the Tribulation was part of the Day of the Lord.
Therefore, when the false teaching informed them they were in the Day of the Lord, they assumed they were in the Tribulation. Gundry then asks: could they have been unaware of the Pre-Tribulation Rapture teaching? He points out what their “education” had been. They had received the first epistle from Paul that contained the passage 4:13-18. They also had received Paul’s oral ministry, which Paul refers to in II Thessalonians 2:5. Yet, with all of that, under this hypothesis, they had missed the Pre-Tribulation Rapture. Gundry then asks: if they could not get it, when they had Paul’s oral ministry plus the written record that we have, how can we get it? Therefore, it is inconceivable that they were convinced about being in the Tribulation because they did not know the Pre-Tribulation Rapture teaching.
In the second argument, Gundry proposes (119) that the people of the church knew of the Pre-Tribulation Rapture but thought that they had been left behind and were in the Tribulation (as part of the Day of the Lord). He states that this idea—that the Thessalonians thought that the “momentous coming of Christ” had occurred without their knowing it--“borders on absurdity.” This would imply that they also thought that Paul had been left behind; for the text indicates that they were in contact with Paul. Moreover, they would not have thought that Paul had experienced the Rapture and they had been left behind, since the “erroneous doctrine purported to have come from the apostle himself (v. 2).”
(2) ANSWER TO THE NEED FOR A “CATEGORICAL STATEMENT” OF THE PRE-TRIBULATIONAL RAPTURE
Walvoord then turns his attention to a key contention of Gundry. Gundry writes that…
1. If the Thessalonians thought they were in the Tribulation
2. And if, in fact, Paul taught a Pre-Tribulational Rapture
3. Then, “Correction of the error would have required a categorical statement to the effect that the rapture will take place before the tribulation. Such a statement nowhere appears.” (119)
Walvoord maintains that, “Paul was not silent about the Rapture intervening, if his teaching is rightly interpreted.” He then refers to verses 2:6-7 about the Restrainer. His point is that the removal of the Holy Spirit implies the removal of the church by means of the Rapture. He refers to Gundry’s agreement with himself, Pentecost, and other Pre-Tribulationalists (but not all) who believe that the Holy Spirit is the Restrainer. Walvoord maintains that such a view is “incompatible with posttribulationism.” He also maintains that Gundry identifies the Holy Spirit “as in the church.” This however is not precisely Gundry’s position. He recognizes the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the church, but also maintains that His restraining activity is not dependent on His residence in the church.
Walvoord and Gundry agree on the identity of the Restrainer as the Holy Spirit. However, Gundry (122-126) rejects the “corollary” to that idea. That corollary is the following (126):
· The “Church constitutes His [the Spirit’s] agency of restraint” of the Antichrist.
· Removal of the Restrainer (the Spirit) “entails removal of the Church from the earth” (i.e. the Pre-Tribulation Rapture).
· Furthermore, the Spirit continues in a ministry that is a “weaker, OT [Old Testament] form.”
Gundry answers this by maintaining that there is Biblical evidence for a New Testament-type of Spirit activity during the Tribulation period. He refers to Acts 2:32-33 to establish that the Spirit’s ministry comes out of the victory of Christ, which is “not subject to negation.” He refers to Mark 13:11 to establish the “indwelling” of the Spirit during the Tribulation (assigning that verse to the Tribulation). He also refers to the powerful evangelism that will take place during the Tribulation. He asserts that it would be impossible for the 144,000 to evangelize the world in seven years “with less than the fullness of the Spirit.”
Furthermore, he argues that the Holy Spirit does not necessarily limit Himself to the church. He can do things beyond His ministry through the church. Finally, he makes the point that the expression indicating the Spirit is removed from restraining the Antichrist does not mean the Spirit exits the world. Rather, the expression could be translated “gets out of the way.” Thus, the Spirit is blocking the Antichrist until the moment He gets out of the way and allows “the man of lawlessness to stride onstage before the admiring eyes of mankind.” (127) Thus, the fact that the Spirit no longer restrains the Antichrist does not imply that the church—and the ministry of the Spirit in New Testament fullness—are removed from the world. In other words, the Restrainer/Spirit’s removal is not a basis for the idea that the church is removed at the beginning of the Tribulation in a Pre-Tribulation Rapture.
I have already given a commentary on this passage in a previous article, so I shall avoid going over all the ground again. These writers focus our attention on the following issues:
· What misunderstanding led the Thessalonians to conclude they were in the Day of the Lord?
· How did Paul correct that misunderstanding?
· What do these first two issues tell us about the theories of a Pre-Tribulation Rapture and a Post-Tribulation Rapture?
· When does the Day of the Lord begin?
· Who or what is the restrainer?
The straight-forward statement of Paul in verse 2:2 is that the Thessalonians believed either that the Day of the Lord had come and gone or that they were “in” the Day of the Lord. All three writers assume that the Thessalonians believed that the Tribulation was part of the Day of the Lord and that they were in the Tribulation. Gundry believes that they were mistaken in their belief that the Tribulation was part of the Day of the Lord, but Pentecost and Walvoord both believe that the Tribulation IS part of the Day of the Lord.
Gundry devotes a chapter explaining why he believes that the Day of the Lord does not include the Tribulation. Incidentally, he names several Pre-Tribulationalists who agree with him. It is beyond the scope of this article to assess his arguments.
I do not believe that we can say definitively that the Thessalonians believed that they were in the Tribulation. Just what they thought is an unknown, but it is possible that they thought that Christ had come and was hidden somewhere. Jesus predicted that those kinds of deceptions would come up in the last days (Matthew 24:23-26).
At any rate, the question is: what was the nature of the error that led to the church’s confusion? Walvoord says it was a false teaching of a Post-Tribulational Rapture. Gundry says it was a false teaching that the Tribulation is part of the Day of the Lord. It seems to me that we can decide which is correct by how Paul corrects their misunderstanding. Walvoord says that Paul gave the church the Signal Events to prove that they were not in the Tribulation/Day of the Lord. Gundry says that Paul gave the Signal Events to prove that the Day of the Lord had not come yet. Walvoord’s interpretation of verse 2:3 is erroneous. Paul is not giving signs of the Day of the Lord, but rather he is giving precursors to the Day of the Lord. So, in fact, the Signal Events must come and then the Day of the Lord.
Whatever understanding that the Thessalonians had about where they were on God’s time line, Paul clarified that they could be sure that they were not in the Day of the Lord. So, if they thought they were in the Tribulation or they thought Jesus had come in a hidden fashion, their misconception was cleared up by the fact that the Signal Events had not occurred.
What is very obvious by its absence in Paul’s answer is any mention of the Pre-Tribulation Rapture. If there is to be a Pre-Tribulation Rapture, then the most straight-forward correction of the Thessalonian error would be to explain the timing of the Rapture. They could not be in the Tribulation because they were not going to go through the Tribulation, but, instead, experience Rapture first! Walvoord says this is argument by absence as though this is defective somehow. I just cannot see any reason to reject this argument.
Walvoord claims that Paul’s discussion of the Restrainer IS a statement, by implication, of the Pre-Tribulation Rapture. He says it is “clearly implied.” First, as Gundry points out, no one really knows for sure who or what the Restrainer is. He agrees with Pentecost and Walvoord that the Restrainer is probably the Holy Spirit, but it is still an open question. So, Gundry says a doctrine of the timing of the Rapture should not rest on such a vague conclusion (122). In fact, verse 2:6-7 are in no way a “clear” implication of the Pre-Tribulation Rapture.
So, the evidence from the passage rules out that a false teaching of a Post-Tribulation Rapture was the error to which the church was exposed. Rather, the false teaching convinced the Thessalonians that they were living either in the Tribulation or at the Second Coming. Paul’s teaching that the Signal Events must come first before the Day of the Lord corrected their error.
I say that Gundry has “won” this debate. He has
· Pointed out the absence in the passage of a clear statement of the Pre-Tribulation Rapture
· Correctly interpreted the meaning of verse 2:3, which requires that the Day of the Lord take place after the Signal Events; this corrects the church’s misconception of being in the Day of the Lord and preserves the notion of a Post-Tribulation Rapture
· Countered the idea that the removal of the Restrainer/Holy Spirit necessitates the removal of the church in a Pre-Tribulation Rapture; this negates the idea that the discussion in verses 2:6-7 implies a Pre-Tribulation Rapture
· Explained how several hypothetical scenarios based on a Pre-Tribulational Rapture reduce to absurdity
· Accounts for the “shaken in mind” (2:2) condition of the church; although this is probably the weakest of his various arguments
I believe this passage critically challenges the theories of the timing of the Rapture. Careful analysis reveals that the logic of the passage does not fit a Pre-Tribulation Rapture of the church.
Crossway Bibles (2009-04-09). ESV Study Bible. Good News Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Gundry, Robert H. The Church and the Tribulation. Grand Rapids, MI: Acadamie Books,
Zondervan Publ. House, 1973.
Pentecost, J. Dwight. Things to Come. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publ. House, 1958.
Walvoord, John F. (2010-12-21). The Rapture Question (Kindle Location 3209). Zondervan. Kindle
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