What if you found out that a doctrine that the Church had believed for hundreds of years was in error? Would you even believe it? What would that do to your faith? How would it effect the other things you believe? How might it change the way you live? How might it change the way you read the Bible?
We aren’t terribly afraid to talk about Catholic doctrine as error, yet we may forget that many of the errors of Catholic theology were normative in the church for centuries. Martin Luther fought for salvation by grace alone, a doctrine that seems glaringly obvious in a number of the Apostle Paul’s letters.
How did the Catholic Church miss this?
In Luther’s day, the Catholic Church taught sanctification through religious practices of self-denial that deprived the flesh in order to feed the spirit (a Gnostic idea, for sure). Luther, himself a cleric and one who knew these religious practices well, felt his sin too great to be covered by the righteousness of rote works. Therefore, he leaned into the counsel of scripture that taught clearly, salvation and sanctification as the work of God, but more importantly the free grace of God.
It’s a grave error to perceive that man must sanctify himself when the scriptures are clear that man cannot sanctify Himself; it is the work of God. And yet that error has persisted in some form since the early establishment of the Catholic Church until today.
Lest you scoff, Evangelical Protestant, please remember that your faith stems from the perseverance of godly Catholic men and women. At any rate, I find it best to admit that I myself must—if so many that have gone before me have persisted in the same folly—have some degree of fault in my thinking. You would be humble in doing likewise.
Therefore, the question may not be, What if I have believed error? but, What error must have I believed?
I think it’s healthy to maintain that we all believe a certain amount of error due to the human condition. Partial truths. Half-truths. Blatant lies.
Humans are…well…human. And to be human is to be a sinner. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). When we read ‘sin,’ we must not read it as things we do in defiance to God alone, intentional sin. Sin is a disease that affects our mind and hearts and is most evident in our habits. It is the habit of a human to sin and it is the habit of a human to make their sin righteous in his or her own eyes.
And not only sin but finitude. Imagine opening a puzzle box only to find that your 1,000-piece puzzle is missing all but 127 pieces. You can certainly guess as to where some of the pieces might go, but without the box, you cannot even make an educated guess. And even with the box, you still may only be close. You will never get the pieces exactly where they go and even if you could, you could not be certain, nor would not be able to envision the entire picture.
That is to be human, to have some facts about reality, but never enough to form the whole picture, and never enough to really get the pieces in precisely the right places.
I write this to say, even in the light of such great biblical scholarship, the church today still persists in patterns of unhelpful thinking, thinking that is in error. I can think of two great errors. I already wrote about the difference between Sola Fide or Sola Fidelitatis, so I won’t rehash that here.
Instead, I’d like to go to a second, which we call the Parousia or the Rapture.
By ‘Rapture,’ I mean the idea that Jesus will come in the sky to take His people away to heaven before the Great Tribulation. This idea is often called the Secret Rapture, as we get pictures of Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind books, where Christ returns secretly without anyone seeing him. Piles of clothes are left where believers once stood. Busses, moments before driven by Christian bus drivers, careen off the road wreaking havoc. You get the idea.
The word rapture means joy. Author Joseph Campbell wrote, “We’re so engaged in doing things to achieve purposes of outer value that we forget the inner value, the rapture that is associated with being alive, is what it is all about.” By this, he means that there is a rapture or joy in a life lived for today. He most certainly is not pointing to a future coming of Christ. But, early dispensationalists chose the word rapture to describe this coming of Christ, because, for the Christian, this is the moment of purest rapture, incomparable joy.
The Greek word that has motivated the idea of the rapture is parousia. Parousia simply means ‘coming.’ Several times the biblical authors used the word parousia when they wrote of the second coming of Christ. For example,
For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming [parousia] those who belong to Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:22–23, ESV)
Now, the entire Christian faith is built upon this concept that Christ is returning for His church. The biblical authors make that much clear. Jesus himself made that clear. What is unclear is how it all unfolds. Again, we have limited pieces of the puzzle.
But, I would posit to you that there are more or less logical ways to align the pieces. Virtually everyone would agree on the following blocks—a few groups of puzzle pieces that obviously fit together.
- The church era, which falls between the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus and the second coming of Jesus.
- The millennium, which can be either a literal 1,000 years or be interpreted as ‘a really long time.’ During the millennium, Satan is bound under the earth in punishment for war crimes committed against God. Near the end of the millennium, he is released to cause a bunch of problems before the final judgment comes.
- The great tribulation, which can be a literal 7 years or a figurative period of time. During this time, horrible atrocities will occur on the earth.
The data has been organized in three ways, historically. I want you to notice that all of these theories contain the same basic blocks of data, but that it’s hard to tell from scripture (the puzzle box) exactly where they fit into the picture as a whole.
Notice that in all three options, there is a rapture or a parousia, a second coming of Christ. We could call that rapture because it is the moment of eternal joy. But, it cannot be said in any of these positions that the rapture is secret.
“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11, ESV)
For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. (1 Thessalonians 4:16, ESV)
Jesus ascended into heaven visibly and will return visibly according to the promise of the angels. This is no secret coming.
But, a new view emerged in the 19th century, first popularized by John Nelson Darby. Today, this view is called Dispensational Premillennialism.
In this view, the same basic building blocks exist, but there is a bit of confusion when it comes to the parousia. In this view, there is a secret rapture that happens before the Great Tribulation, where Jesus comes and takes the holy ones off to heaven for a period of seven years before Jesus comes to reign on earth through the millennium.
In other words, Darby has invented a third coming!
The problems here are numerous. First, no one ever believed in three comings, historically, as far as I can tell. Second, the scriptures don’t speak of three comings, although the second coming is mentioned many times. Third, the passages about the parousia have to be divided unnaturally (read illogically) between the 2nd and 3rd comings in order to make the theory work.
Dispensational premillennialism is the most illogically ordered perspective and yet it is by far the most common.
I won’t be patronizing by insisting that it is enough to believe the truth. Beyond our desire to have true knowledge, I think there are implications for life today that flow from our perspectives on the end times. Here are a few.
- Both premillennial perspectives place the millennium where Christ rules as a future event. Amillennialism and Postmillennialism place the millennium before Christ returns which means that today, Christ rules on earth through the hearts of his people. This means that we have power and authority even now, of a type that we will have in God’s Eternal Kingdom. In other words, we already have what we will have ultimately in the Eternal Kingdom.
- Dispensational Premillennialism allows the church to skip the Great Tribulation. The early church did, in fact, go through a ‘great tribulation,’ however. And the scriptures promise that the church will undergo trial and tribulation. I see no way that the church escapes it. Matthew 24 makes it pretty clear that the elect will endure the Great Tribulation, but that it will be cut short for the sake of God’s people. Further, the biblical paradigm is that believers have the peace, joy, and love of Christ in spite of tribulation, not that we escape it. I believe there’s strength in expecting tribulation and also expecting joy in the midst of it.
- Dispensational Premillennialism is unnecessarily complicated. It’s just plain and simple hard to explain from scripture. Most people know what they believe—the secret rapture—but can’t really communicate that from scripture, because it’s just what they have been told is true. It makes better fan fiction than theology. It fails as a witness tool when you can’t tell someone why you believe what it is that you believe. How much better if you can claim the rule of Christ in your heart now (Amillennialism/Postmillennialism/Historic Premillennialism)?
I realize that this is not an exhaustive analysis and may not be in every way fair to any system. But, again, it is what I am thinking about. I believe Dispensational Premillennialism to be error. I’m not asking anyone to abandon it. I’m just asking you to think about it with me.
What will you do if you find that you also believe error?