House Divided Bridging the Gap in Reformed Eschatology A Preterist Response to
When Shall These Things Be?
The Eschatological Madness of Mathison or How Can These Things Be?
Part 8 – The Rapture 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17
Michael J. Sullivan
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Mathison argues: Some have said that since Paul used the word “we” in
1 Thessalonians 4:15 and 17, Paul expected the events of 1 Thessalonians
4 to occur within his own lifetime. “The problem with this interpretation
is that in several other epistles Paul talks as though he could die soon.”
Therefore “Paul [was] simply using the pronoun ‘we’ in a general way to
mean ‘we Christians.’ As far as Paul knew, Christ could have returned in
his lifetime, but there was nothing that demanded He do so” (194).
To my knowledge, no preterist thinks that Paul assumed that he himself
would be included in the group of believers who would remain
alive to the coming of the Lord. If I were to say, “We who live long
enough to see the year 2030,” there is no reason to think that I would
be assuming that I myself would be among the living in 2030. My only
assumption would be that some of us today would be alive in 2030.
In the same way, Paul’s words imply only that he knew that some of
his contemporaries would still be alive when Christ returned, as Christ
Himself promised would be the case in Matthew 16:27–28; 24:34.
According to Mathison, all of Paul’s “we,” “you,” and “our” statements
in 1 and 2 Thessalonians refer to Paul’s own first-century audience and
address Christ’s coming in AD 70—except for the statements in 1 Thessalonians
4 (“the rapture”). Mathison decides that “we” in 1 Thessalonians
4 means something other than what it means everywhere else in
1 and 2 Thessalonians. Suddenly in chapter 4, “we” includes Christians
who potentially will not be alive for a million years from today. Now let
us move on from arbitrary Mathisonian constructs to a biblical look at
“the rapture” passage, 1 Thessalonians 4:15–17.
A day was approaching when Christ would deliver believers from
their persecutions and pour out His wrath upon their persecutors (1
Thess. 1:10; cf. 2 Thess. 1:6–7). When that day came, the Lord descended
from heaven with a word of command (or “a shout”), with archangelic
voice, and with a trumpet call of God; and the dead in Christ rose.
Then the living in Christ and the dead in Christ were simultaneously
“caught up” in “clouds” to “a meeting of the Lord in the air.”
We can know that Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 4:14–17 are not
to be interpreted literally (a literal trumpet, etc.) because the Scriptures
tell us elsewhere not to interpret them literally. In Exodus 19 and 20,
the Lord came down in a cloud over Mount Sinai. He spoke with a loud
voice. There was the sound of a loud trumpet. And Moses met the Lord
on Mount Sinai. Then God established His covenant with His people.
The writer of Hebrews tells us that though the trumpet and the voice
of the old covenant were literal, the “trumpet” and the “voice” of the
new covenant are not literal (Heb. 12:18–19). Neither is the mountain
(Mount Zion) literal in the new covenant (Heb. 12:18, 22). Therefore,
neither is the cloud (which descended to cover the mountain) literal in
the new covenant.
Since the cloud-covered mountain is not literal, but is heavenly,
neither then is the meeting that takes place in the heavenly mountain
(i.e., in the clouds in the air) literal. Therefore the shout, voice, trumpet,
mountain, cloud, and meeting of 1 Thessalonians 4:16 are all spiritual
antitypes of the literal shout, voice, trumpet, mountain, cloud, and meeting
of Exodus 19 and 20 (Heb. 12:18–22).
What we have then in 1 Thessalonians 4:15–17 is the “rapturously”
metaphorical language of a prophet who is speaking of antitypical, spiritual
realities —the transcendent profundities of Christological glory in
and among the saints in the consummation of the ages. If this sounds
like an over-spiritualization, it shouldn’t. The Lord Jesus Himself was
opposed to a literal removal of the church out of the world:
I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them
from the evil one. (John 17:15)
The “rapture” passage is no more literal than the prophecy of
Ezekiel 37:4–14. In that passage, God caused a valley full of dry
bones to come together. He attached tendons to them and put skin
on them. Then He caused the bodies to breathe and they stood on
their feet as a vast army. The bones represented the house of Israel.
They were hopelessly cut off from the land, and were said to be in
“graves.” As God had done for the dry bones, He was going to do for
the house of Israel.
In the same way, in 1 Thessalonians 4:15–17, God raised up His
church —the first fruits of the resurrection-harvest— which was anxiously
longing for the consummation of redemption and atonement.
As a mighty warrior, the Lord issued forth his shout of command and
sounded the trumpet of God. Then His spiritual army arose by His
power. They met Him on His way to His temple to judge the enemies
in His kingdom (Mal. 3:1). That is when God afflicted the persecutors
of His church, when He gave His people relief and glorified Himself in
them (2 Thess. 1:8–10).
Being revealed with Christ in glory (Col. 3:4) and becoming like
Him and seeing Him in His Parousia (1 Jn 3:2) had nothing to do with
escaping physical death or with being literally caught up into the literal
sky or with being biologically changed. It had to do with God’s people,
living and dead, being “gathered together” to become His eternal Tabernacle,
His spiritual Body, the New Man, the heavenly Mount Zion, the
New Jerusalem in the Spirit. “This mystery is great” (Eph. 5:32), and is
therefore communicated in the accommodative “sign language” of prophetic
Since our Lord came “with His saints” and destroyed the earthly temple
in AD 70 (Heb. 9:8), the church of all ages lives and reigns in glory
with Him forever (Rom. 6:8; 2 Cor. 13:4; 2 Tim. 2:11–12). Now whether
we are alive or asleep, we “live together with Him” (1 Thess. 5:10). This
was not the case in the Old Testament, when to die was to be cut off from
the people of God. As Paul says in Romans 14:8–9, “ . . . whether we live or
die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and rose and lived again,
that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.”
1 Thessalonians 4–5 & Matthew 24
For this we say to you by the word of the Lord . . . .
(1 Thess. 4:15)
Virtually every commentator and cross reference system parallels 1
Thessalonians 4:15–16 with Matthew 24:30–31 and 1 Corinthians 15:51–
52, and agrees that Paul is using Christ’s Olivet Discourse as the foundation
for his teaching concerning Christ’s Parousia throughout the Thessalonian
epistles. For example the Reformation Study Bible, of which
Mathison is Associate Editor, states of Matthew 24:31:
But the language of [Matthew 24:31] is parallel to passages like
13:41; 16:27; 25:31, as well as to passages such as 1 Cor. 15:52 and
1 Thess. 4:14–17. The passage most naturally refers to the Second
Ironically, the parallels between Paul and the Olivet Discourse become
the clearest in the one chapter in 1 Thessalonians that Mathison
severs from the Olivet Discourse. Mathison admits the parallels between
1 Thessalonians 4 and 1 Corinthians 15 (193), but he avoids the obvious
parallels between 1 Thessalonians 4 and Matthew 24.
Reformed and Evangelical commentators such as G.K. Beale see
that in 1 Thessalonians 4–5, Paul is drawing from Jesus’ teaching in
That both [1 Thessalonians] 4:15–18 and 5:1–11 explain the
same events is discernible from observing that both passages
actually form one continuous depiction of the same narrative
in Matthew 24. . . .
Here are some of the parallels between Matthew 24 and 1 Thessalonians
• Christ returns from heaven 1 Thess. 4:16 = Matt. 24:30
• with archangelic voice 1 Thess. 4:16 = Matt. 24:31
• with God’s trumpet 1 Thess. 4:16 = Matt. 24:31
• Believers caught up to be with Christ 1 Thess. 4:17 = Matt. 24:31
• Believers meet Christ in “clouds” 1 Thess. 4:17 = Matt. 24:30
• Exact time unknown 1 Thess. 5:1–2 = Matt. 24:36
• Christ comes like a thief 1 Thess. 5:2 = Matt. 24:43
• Unbelievers caught unaware 1 Thess. 5:3 = Matt. 24:37–39
• Birth pains 1 Thess. 5:3 = Matt. 24:8
• Believers are not deceived 1 Thess. 5:4–5 = Matt. 24:43
• Believers told to be watchful 1 Thess. 5:6 = Matt. 24:42
• Exhortation against drunkenness 1 Thess. 5:7 = Matt. 24:49
• Τhe Day, sons of light, sons of the day 1 Thess. 5:4–8 = Matt. 24:27,
Beale goes on to write:
Other significant parallels include: the use of the word parousia
for Christ’s coming; reference to Christ’s advent as “that day”
(Mt. 24:36) or “the day of the Lord” (1 Thess. 5:2); and a description
of someone coming to “meet” another (eis apantesin autou,
virgins coming out to “meet” the bridegroom in Mt. 25:6; eis
apantesin tou kyriou, believers “meeting” the Lord in 1 Thess.
4:17; see further Waterman 1975).
In a more recent work Beale now seems to lean in the direction that
the coming of the Son of Man in Matthew 24:30 was fulfilled in AD 70
and not at the end of history:
“The clearest reference to Jesus as the Son of Man from Daniel 7:13 come
in the third category (which he identifies as “those that refer to Jesus’ future
coming in glory”), where there are quotations of Dan. 7:13 (Matt. 24:30,
Mark 13:26, Luke 21:27). However, it is likely better to see most of these
third-category references fulfilled not at the very end of history but
rather in AD 70 at the destruction of Jerusalem, in which the Son of
Man’s coming would be understood as an invisible coming in judgment,
using the Roman armies as his agent. The reference in Matt. 25:31 to
“the Son of Man” who will “come in His glory” and “sit on His glorious
throne” is not a quotation of but rather an allusion to Dan. 7:13-14, which
clearly is applied to the very end of the age at Christ’s final coming.
If this view is correct, it may be that the AD 70 coming of Christ in
judgment as portrayed by the Synoptics is a typological foreshadowing of
his final coming in judgment. However, the traditional view that the coming
of the Son of Man in the Synoptic eschatological discourse refers to Christ’s
final coming certainly is plausible. This issue is a thorny one that still
deserves much more study.”
This indeed is a “thorny” problem for Mr. Beale to affirm in one work that the
coming and implied resurrection gathering at the end of the age in Matthew 24:30-31
is the same Second Coming of Christ and resurrection event as described
by Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 and now try and affirm that the coming
and resurrection gathering of Matthew 24:30-31 was fulfilled in AD 70. Why?
Because both of these are full preterist or “hyper-preterist” interpretations to
take on these texts. Beale due to creedal commitments will not accept that full
preterism has done the “more study” necessary in order to reconcile
the exegetical problems he and his “orthodox” colleagues have created.
But is Beale then saving himself from this “thorny” problem by citing
Matthew 25:31 as “clearly” the end of time or end of the age coming of
Christ? Not when you consider that partial preterists combined such as Mathison,
DeMar and McDurmon have deemed it orthodox to believe that the coming
of the Son of Man in Matthew 25:31 was not Christ’s “actual” Second Coming,
but was Christ’s going/coming in AD 30–70 and that the “end of the age” here is the
old covenant age ending in AD 70. But this then creates more thorny problems
for these men such as the marriage that follows Matthew 25:10. How many times
does Christ in His Parousia consummate His marriage with the church in
Mathison attempts to avoid the unified parallels between Matthew 24–25 and
1 Thessalonians 4–5 by claiming that his Reformed brothers and “hyper-preterists”
merely assume that “Jesus is speaking of his second advent when he speaks of
‘the coming of the Son of Man’ in Matthew 24 and that Paul is speaking of the
same thing in 1 Thessalonians 4.” The self-evident fact of the matter however
is that Mathison turns a blind eye to overwhelming evidence because
Mathison assumes that partial Preterism is right. It is more than inconsistent to
claim preterist parallels between Matthew 24 and 2 Thessalonians 2 and
between Matthew 24 and 1 Thessalonians 5, and then deny the obvious parallels
between Matthew 24 and 1 Thessalonians 4. But this is what partial preterists
such as Mathison do.
Gentry, to support his argument that 2 Thessalonians 2 was fulfilled
in AD 70, says that “Most commentators agree that the Olivet Discourse
is undoubtedly a source of the Thessalonian Epistles. Unfortunately
Gentry’s sources of authority end up proving too much. For example,
both D.A. Carson and G. Henry Waterman make virtually the same parallels
between Matthew 24–25 and 1 Thessalonians 4–5 that we do.
To make matters worse, Gentry also now concedes that Matthew
24–25 does not necessarily need to be divided and that all of Matthew 24
could be addressing one coming of Christ in AD 70:
“Orthodox preterists see no doctrinal problems arising if we apply all of
Matthew 24 to A.D. 70. We generally do not do so because of certain
exegetical markers in the text. But if these are not sufficient to distinguish
the latter part of Matthew 24 from the earlier part, it would not matter.”
But virtually all scholars and commentators tell us that Matthew
24–25 forms the foundation to and contains parallel prophetic material to
Matthew 13; 1 Corinthians 15; 1 Thessalonians 4–5; 2 Peter 3 and Revelation
20–21. Yet Mathison claims Matthew 24–25 was fulfilled in AD 70
and Gentry doesn’t see a problem with it? How can these things be, indeed?
This is why partial preterism gains a following for a short period, and
then its students end up coming to “hyper-preterism” for a more consistent
and exegetical approach that is in harmony with the analogy of Scripture.
Another problem for Mathison and Gentry is that in their other writings
they admit that the last trumpet of Revelation 11 was fulfilled in AD
70, but they do not discuss the fact that the time of the last trumpet was
the time for “the dead” to be judged (Rev. 11:18). This is the same problem
they face in the immediate context of 1 Peter 4:7. How were the dead
judged in AD 70 without the resurrection of the dead taking place? And
how is this time for the dead being judged different from the time in which
the dead are judged in Revelation 20? And how is this trumpet judgment
in Revelation 11 different from the one in Matthew 24:30–31, 1 Thessalonians
4, and 1 Corinthians 15? The analogy of Scripture nullifies with
finality the arbitrary Scripture-dichotomizations of partial preterism.
Mathison, Postmillennialism, 224–225.
45. G.K. Beale, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series 1–2 Thessalonians
(Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2003), 136. Copyright 2003 by
G.K. Beale. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press. PO Box 1400, Downers
Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com. Some Partial Preterists are now agreeing
that 1 Thessalonians 4:15–17 took place in AD 70. One is admitting that
Gentry and Mathison are forced to “dodge and weave to put this passage into
our future.” Mike Bull, The Last Trumpet, http://www.bullartistry.com.au/
If we translate astrape in Matthew 24:27 as the sun (instead of lightning)
coming from the east and shining to the west, then these parallels are
Mathison, From Age to Age, 515.
Mathison, Postmillenialism, 230.
Kenneth Gentry, Perilous Times: A Study in Eschatological Evil (Texarkana,
AR: Covenant Media Press, 1999), 100, n. 19. Here Gentry cites D.A.
Carson, “Matthew,” in Frank E. Gaebelein, ed., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary,
12 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), 8:489; and G. Henry
Waterman, “The Sources of Paul’s Teaching on the 2nd Coming of Christ in 1
and 2 Thessalonians,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 18:2 (June
52. Kenneth Gentry, He Shall Have Dominion (Draper, VA: Apologetics
Group Media, 2009), 540