Fundamentalism and the Pre-Tribulational Rapture of the Church

feature-article.gifMost fundamentalists have promoted and defended “the Book, the Blood, and the Blessed Hope.” Why is this? If someone does not hold to a certain end-time system does that disqualify him from being a genuine fundamentalist? Does one’s belief about the end times really matter?

Fundamentalism’s Beginnings
There are several different opinions as to the “beginning” of the fundamentalist movement. One popular view sees its origins in connection with the Bible conference movement of the late 1800s. The granddaddy of all Bible conferences, the Niagara Conference, began in 1875 and gave birth to many others. Many of fundamentalism’s early leaders were influential in these Bible conferences, men such as A. C. Gaebelein, W. B. Riley, C. I. Scofield, James M. Gray, and R. A. Torrey.

During these conferences believers gathered for Bible study and fellowship. While Christianity’s fundamental doctrines of were taught and defended, the most popular teaching was the return of Christ before the millennium—premillennialism. Their love for Scripture and overall method of interpreting the Bible also focused their attention on Christ’s return at-any-time for the church before the Day of the Lord—pretribulationalism. In addition to premillennialism and pretribulationalism, these conferences emphasized a commitment to a consistently literal interpretation of the Bible, the church’s place in God’s prophetic program, and a spirit of militancy or aggressiveness about doctrine.

Given this background of fundamentalism’s rise, it is important to recognize that premillennialism and pretribulationalism have never characterized all fundamentalists and have never been identified as an essential characteristic of fundamentalism. Good men who have defended the cardinal doctrines of Christianity have had a variety of beliefs regarding the end times. History cannot be ignored, however: most of the early fundamentalists believed in premillennialism and pretribulationalism.

New Evangelicalism
Since we’re talking history, it is interesting to note that since the 1940s, one of the main objections new evangelicalism had toward fundamentalism was the latter’s pretribulationalism. Since most fundamentalists were premillennial and pretribulational, they emphasized personal and ecclesiastical separation because churches would continue to fall away from the faith (become apostate) and civilization would grow more and more degenerate. Thus, they promoted and defended “the Book, the Blood, and the Blessed Hope,” and new evangelicals considered them un-intellectual and out of touch with society.

New evangelicals viewed pretribulationalism as overly negative and gloomy, and so they sought to “reform” fundamentalism by curing it of such weaknesses and ills. New evangelicalism taught that instead of the church coming out of the world, it must redeem and transform the culture. Instead of believing in an entirely future kingdom, they believed it was partly realized today. Thus, evangelicals should not only preach Christ, they must show compassion to the world through social involvement and implement a “kingdom ethic.”

The Biblical Basis for the Pretribulational Rapture of the Church
While, as has been stated, premillennialism and pretribulationalism are not beliefs that determine whether one is a fundamentalist or not, they are beliefs that the Ohio Bible Fellowship has maintained and required for membership since its inception in 1968. Its constitution states that

“We believe in the dispensational view of the Bible…We believe in that ‘Blessed Hope,’ the personal, imminent, pretribulational and premillennial coming of the Lord Jesus Christ for His redeemed ones; and in His subsequent return to the earth, with His saints, to establish His Millennial Kingdom (1 Thess 4:13–18; Zech 14:4–11; Rev 19:11–16; 1 Thess 1:10; 5:9; Rev 3:10).”

As a statement this is not intended to give an explanation or defense of the rapture. While an exhaustive study is more than can be accomplished here, a basic survey of the Scripture’s teaching can be given, focusing on four basic lines of truth:

The Purpose of the Tribulation
During this period God will render judgment on the exceeding and unrepentant sinfulness of the wicked (Rev 9:20–21; 14:14–19). Israel will be chastened for her millennia of unbelief (“Jacob’s trouble,” Jer 30:7; Dan 12:1) but because of this judgment, the nation will turn to God and be born again (Dan 12:1; Zech 12:10; Rom 11:26). In addition to God’s salvation of individual Israelites, a large number of Gentiles will also be saved (Zeph 3:9; Rev 7:9–17). The church is never identified as present during this period of judgment.

God’s Promises to the Church
God has promised to protect the church by removing it from the time of worldwide judgment during the Tribulation (Rev 3:10). God has promised that He will not allow the church to go through the period of His wrath in the end times (1 Thess 1:10; on “delivered,” cf. 2 Pet 2:5, 7—neither Noah nor Lot went through God’s judgment on the ungodly but were delivered from such). God has promised that through Jesus Christ Christians will have no part in the coming day of judgment (1 Thess 5:9).

The Place of the Church in the Book of Revelation
An honest, simple reading of this epistle has to recognize that while the church is often mentioned in chapters 2–3, it is never mentioned in chapters 4–19. These sixteen chapters describe the time of wrath (6:15–17; 14:10; 15:1; 19:15) from which God has promised to deliver the church. Where is the church during the Tribulation? From 13:6 (“his tabernacle, those who dwell in heaven”) and 19:1–10 (“the marriage of the Lamb…his wife has made herself ready”) church age saints are in heaven and they will follow Christ when he returns to the earth at His Second Coming (19:14).

Christ Can Come at Any Moment
In passages that clearly talk about the rapture, no mention is made of any event that must happen before Christ’s return for the saints. When Paul spoke of the rapture he included himself as a potential participant (1 Cor 15:51–53; 1 Thess 1:10; 4:15–17). Christ’s coming is described as being “at hand” (Rom 13:12; Jas 5:8–9; Rev 22:7, 12, 20) and Christians are exhorted to look for Christ’s return (1 Cor 1:7–8; Phil 3:20; Titus 2:13).

The Importance of Christ’s Return for Today
Does a believer’s, church’s, or Christian organization’s belief about the end times really matter? After all, souls are crying and men are dying! Why bother spending time identifying the significance of toes, bowls, seals, and trumpets?

For one thing, we have been entrusted by God with His Word (Jude 3). The Bible—including prophecy—is exactly what God wanted written, has been protected from distortion or loss, and is entirely sufficient for believers to live the kind of lives that God expects. One walks on dangerous ground if he says that part of God’s Word is unimportant or has no significance. God said that “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim 3:16–17).

The centerpiece and means God has ordained in this day and age to accomplish his work is the church (Eph 3:10). The church’s mission of declaring and defending the truth (1 Tim 3:15) is most consistently upheld by the pretribulational view of the rapture. Unlike national Israel in the Old Testament, the church does not have a role in social betterment or redeeming and transforming the culture. Instead, its role in this day and age is to spread the gospel and build up the saints by proclaiming God’s Word until he returns (Matt 28:19–20; Col 1:28). Because Christ is coming we must be busy about the Master’s work (2 Tim 4:1–2)!

The church’s character as God’s household and Christ’s pure bride means that she must continually strive for purity, both in the individual lives of its members and in its formal, organizational connections. Throughout the New Testament, Christ’s imminent return for the saints is continually given as a motivating factor for purity (Phil 1:9–10; Col 3:3–5; Titus 2:11–13; 2 Pet 3:11–13; 1 John 3:2–3; Rev 2:25; 3:11).

Fundamentalism is jealously concerned with purity of doctrine and the testimony of the church. Many fundamental men and ministries who were not pretribulationalists have helped the Cause of Christ. However, pretribulationalism is not only most accurate biblical teaching concerning the future of Christ’s bride, it provides the most consistent and helpful means of jealously promoting and guarding the purity of doctrine and church.
Far from being a negative and gloomy doctrine, Christ’s imminent return for the church is a doctrinal truth that comforts the bereaved (1 Thess 4:13–18), motivates faithful Christian service (1 Cor 15:58), is eagerly anticipated (Heb 9:27–28), and supports saints during severe trials (1 Pet 1:7). It is indeed “the Blessed Hope.”

August 2007

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