One of the characteristic teachings of dispensationalism is the pretribulational rapture of the church. This is the view that Jesus will remove or rapture the church to heaven, both the living and the dead, from the earth prior to the tribulation.
This doctrine is under constant assault. In a January 2019 article on the Patheos website best-selling author, blogger, and popular speaker Frank Viola joined the chorus. In his article “Is the Rapture Biblical?” he based the key part of his argument on his analysis of the Greek word parousia which appears in 1 Thess. 4:15 where it is translated “coming”. That verse reads, “For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming (parousia) of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.”
According to his analysis, “When Caesar was away on a journey and he returned, his royal appearing—his imperial return to the city—was called the parousia. Caesar’s followers would go out to meet him and welcome him back to the city.” Importing his understanding of the word parousia into 1 Thess. 4 he concluded that, “…the scenario of Christ’s return perfectly fits how the Romans and Greeks understood the word parousia. Jesus will appear, the resurrection will occur, and those Christians who are alive will be transformed “in the twinkling of an eye” and meet Jesus in the air. They will then escort Him down from heaven to the newly recreated earth.1”
The problem with Frank Viola’s view is that it is wrong. The word parousia does not mean to go and meet someone and welcome them into the city. Rather the word simply means presence.2 It can also refer to an arrival as the first stage in a persons presence such as someone’s coming. But to say that the word means to meet someone outside a city then escort them back goes beyond its usage.3
This is not to say that non-dispensational commentators would disagree with Frank. Instead, to get to Frank’s meaning, most commentators usually appeal to the term apantesis. This is what Justin Taylor does in his article “9 Reasons We can Be Confident Christians Won’t Be Raptured Before the Tribulation”4 which appeared in 2014 on The Gospel Coalition website. Citing John Piper he argued that apantesis in 1 Thess. 4:17 means “that we rise to meet the Lord in the air and then welcome him to the earth as king”. Same view as Frank but rooted in the alleged meaning of a different word.
The problem with Justin Taylor’s view is that it is wrong. Let’s look more closely. The word apantesis is translated “to meet” in 1 Thess. 4:17, “Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet (apantesis) the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord.”
To support the view that apantesis means to go, meet, then return with a dignitary commentators usually cite the work of Erik Peterson in 1930. He showed that the word had the technical meaning of a meeting where an official delegation meets a visiting dignitary outside the city walls then escorts them back into the city. Peterson’s single work is cited so frequently that his view has become an established and widely accepted “fact”. The problem is that Peterson was mistaken.
In a 1994 study5 Michael Crosby a searched through a comprehensive database of Greek manuscripts. The search focused on the several centuries before and after the New Testament. The result was 91 pages of references to apantesis and related terms. It turned out that only a small number of the references used the term in the way that Peterson’s earlier study alleged.6 In the vast majority of cases the term is used to simply describe a meeting of any kind.
So both Frank Viola and Justin Taylor are factually wrong in their analysis of key words. Getting the meaning of the words wrong means that they get the meaning of the passage wrong. This of course means that their objections to the doctrine of a pretribulational rapture of the church wrong. Unfortunately their flawed method of reasoning is wide-spread among non-dispensationalists.
1 https://www.patheos.com/blogs/frankviola/thesecondcoming/ Accessed September 8, 2019.
2 William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 780.
3 A review of the way the word is used in the New Testament shows that it is used to refer to someone’s arrival or coming (1 Cor 16:17, 2 Cor. 7:6-7, Phil 1:26, 2 Thess 2:9) and the coming of a time (2 Pet 2:12). It is used to refer to the coming of Jesus in 1 Cor. 15:23; 1 Thess. 2:19; 4:15; 5:23; 2 Thess. 2:1; James 5:7, 8; 2 Pet. 3:4; 1 John 2:28
5 Michael R. Crosby, “Hellenistic Formal Receptions and Paul’s Use of APANTHESIS in 1 Thessalonians 4:17,” Bulletin for Biblical Resarch 4 (1994).
6 For a more detailed discussion see Kevin D. Zuber’s excellent chapter “Paul and the Rapture: 1 Thessalonians 4-5: in Evidence for the Rapture: A Biblical Case for Pretribulationalism. (Chicago, IL: Moody, 2015), 158-159.