Amillennialists see the return of Jesus as one single event at the end of history. In their view, Jesus arrives in a personal, visible, and physical way just in time for the end of the world. They reject the notion that His arrival is imminent since several “signs” or events must happen first. Lewis Berkhof contends, “According to Scripture, several important events must occur before the return of the Lord, and therefore it cannot be called imminent.”1
Berkhof list these events:
- Evangelization of the nations
- Conversion of Israel
- A great apostasy and tribulation
- Revealing of the antichrist
- An outbreak of signs and wonders, the rumors of wars, famines, earthquakes, false prophets, signs in the heavens
All these events must first take place. Only then does Christ return.
On the other hand, as dispensationalists, we also contend that there will indeed be signs preceding the second coming of Jesus. That is what Revelation 6 – 19 is all about. These chapters contain Jesus’s prophecy of the signs preceding His arrival. Those alive at this time are to watch for these signs and be ready because Jesus will come suddenly and unexpectedly “as a thief in the night” (Mt. 24:32-25:13, 1 Thess. 5:1-8, 2 Pet. 3:10). But we also say that, before any of the signs preceding His second coming to earth happen, Jesus will first return and take His church out of the world. We refer to this as the rapture. The church waits for and looks for the rapture. Those who remain after the rapture are to watch for the signs of His second coming.
Some object to the idea of a rapture claiming that the word “rapture” does not appear in the Bible. But thanks to four years of high school Latin, of which I retain very little, I know the word “rapture” is derived from the Latin word rapio. Rapio means to snatch and remove from one place to another place. When he was translating the Greek New Testament into Latin, Jerome used rapio to translate the Greek word harpazo, which means snatch away or take away. Paul, writing in 1 Thess. 4:16-17, said that Jesus will descend from heaven, the dead will rise, and those alive will be caught up (harpozo/rapio) with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. This is the rapture.
The Bible also makes a clear distinction between the rapture of the church and the second coming of Jesus. Thanks to the work of Tommy Ice, Timothy Demy, Dwight Pentecost, Richard Mayhue, Tim Lahaye, and Tony Garland I have compiled the following chart. It shows sixteen differences between the rapture and Jesus’ second coming.
|Jesus comes for His church (John 14:3;1Th. 5:28; 2Th. 2:1).||Jesus comes with His church (1Th. 3:13; Jude 1:14; Rev. 19:14ff).|
|Jesus comes in the air (1Th. 4:17).||Jesus comes to the earth (Zec. 14:4; Acts 1:11).|
|Jesus claims His bride (1Th. 4:16-17).||Jesus comes with His bride (Rev. 19:6-14+).|
|Believers are taken to heaven (1Th. 4:17).||Jesus returns to earth (Mal. 4:2).|
|Only believers see Him (1Th. 4:13-18).||Every eye shall see Him (Rev. 1:7+).|
|Tribulation begins (2Th. 1:6-9).||Millennial Kingdom begins (Rev. 20:1-7+).|
|The church is delivered from wrath (1Th. 1:10; 1Th. 5:9).||The wrath of God comes on the earth (Rev. 6:12-17+).|
|No signs precede rapture (1Th. 5:1-3).||Signs precede Second Coming (Luke 21:11, Luke 21:15).|
|Focus is Lord and Church (1Th. 4:13-18).||Focus is Israel and kingdom (Mat. 24:14).|
|Satan deceives the world (2Th. 2:3-12).||Satan is bound so he cannot deceive (Rev. 20:1-2ff).|
|Believers depart the earth (1Th. 4:15-17).||Unbelievers are taken away from the earth (Mat. 24:37-41).|
|Unbelievers remain on earth.||Believers remain on earth (Mat. 25:34).|
|No mention of establishing Jesus’s Kingdom on earth.||Jesus has come to set up His Kingdom on earth (Mat. 25:31, Mat. 25:34).|
|The church is taken to the Father’s house (John 14:1-3).||Resurrected saints do not see the Father’s house (Rev. 20:4+).|
|Imminent—could happen at any moment.||Cannot occur for at least 7 years.|
|Before the man of sin. (2Th. 2:1-3).||Ends the man of sin (Rev. 19:20ff).|
No signs precede the rapture, so we think it could happen at any moment even before you finish reading this. In other words, we believe this Jesus’ coming for the church at the rapture is imminent.
Jesus’ brother James also had this view because he wrote that “the coming of the Lord is near” (James 5:8). Paul likewise wrote, “…the Lord is near” (Phil. 4:5). He taught that the church was to be in waiting, on the lookout, and ready for Jesus’ return at any moment. In fact, one of the shreds of evidence of Paul’s success in establishing a church in Thessalonica was that they had turned to God and away from idols and that they were waiting for Jesus’ return to deliver them from the coming wrath (1 Thess. 1:9-10). In Titus 2:13 Paul wrote sanctification was marked by a renunciation of ungodliness, the adoption of a godly lifestyle, and the anticipation of the appearing of Jesus. Whoever wrote Hebrews also seemed to be anticipating the any moment appearing of Jesus when they referred to those who were eagerly waiting for the return of Jesus (Hb. 9:28). Let’s not leave out John, who wrote that when Jesus appears, we will be made like Him and our hope in His appearance motivates us now to sanctify ourselves (1 Jn. 3:2-3).
Note the close interrelationship between the imminence of Jesus’ arrival and sanctification. In 1 Thess. 1:9-10 and Titus 2:13, the anticipation of Jesus’ any moment arrival was a mark of sanctification. In 1 Jn. 3:2-3 it is a motive for sanctification. In other words, those being sanctified are looking for Jesus’ arrival at any moment.
The reason that James, Paul, John, and the writer of Hebrews are looking for the any moment return of Jesus for His church is because Jesus told them He was coming for them. Jesus said, “Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:1–3). Simply stated, Jesus told the disciples that He was returning to heaven and would come back and get them and bring them there. The promise to the apostles is also for the church. Commenting on this Lewis Sperry Chafer wrote “The very absence of a date in this passage, addressed to the eleven in the upper room, extends that promise to all succeeding generations until He comes.”2
So not only does the “single return” view of amillennialism misunderstand the teaching of Jesus and the apostles, it also robs the church of an essential motivation for and a mark of holy, sanctified living.
1 L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co., 1938), 696.
2 Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1993), 367.