Chapter 6

The Imminence Problem

Alan Hultberg: “Imminence is really a keystone issue for the Pretribulational Rapture.”

Alan Kurschner: “Well, in the Pretribulational theological sense of the term, imminence means that there are no prophesied events that must happen before the rapture. The rapture is sign less; it could happen at any moment—right now. And hence, they consider the rapture imminent.”

It’s hard to overemphasize how important this idea of imminence is to the concept of the Pretribulational rapture. Pretribbers often claim that imminency and Pretribulationism are basically one in the same thing. Take, for example, this quote from one of the most prominent Pretribulational scholars, John Walvoord:

“For the most part, scriptural evidence for imminence today is equivalent to proof of the pretribulation viewpoint. For all practical purposes, abandonment of the Pretribulational return of Christ is tantamount to abandonment of the hope of His imminent return.”

The first thing that you should know about imminence is that it is a brand-new doctrine.

It appears to have originated in the early 1800s with the so-called Plymouth Brethren and John Darby. And there is no sign of the belief in an “imminent rapture before the Antichrist arrives” among any of the of the church fathers of the previous 1,800 years before Darby.

And it’s not just pretrib critics saying that, even Pretribulationists agree that it cannot be found in the writings of the early church.

Take for example Dr. Larry Crutchfield, an expert in church history and a Pretribulationist. He spent a huge amount of time looking for evidence of imminence in the early church writings, and concluded his paper on the subject like this:

“While there are in the writings of the early fathers seeds from which the doctrine of the pretribulational rapture could be developed, it is difficult to find in them an unequivocal statement of the type of imminency usually believed in by pretribulationists”… We do not say that the early fathers were pretribulationists in the modern sense, only that the seeds were indeed there.”

Earlier in the paper, Crutchfield said that what the early church did believe about the timing of the rapture should be termed something like “imminent intra-tribulationism” meaning that most of the church fathers believed that the rapture would only come after the Antichrist was revealed and the persecution of Christians began. They believed the rapture would be imminent, but only after the certain precursors occurred, most notably the abomination of desolation at the midpoint.

This Pretribulational expert on the church Fathers, therefore, is essentially telling his readers that the early church was for all intents and purposes…. Prewrath.

We will deal more with the early church in the last section of this film, but for now we will go through all the ways Pretribbers will try to prove imminence from the Bible alone.

If you take all the verses that Pretribulationists use to prove imminence a few patterns emerge, so we have categorized each prooftext into its own group.

The first group, I will call “waiting for” verses. This includes verses like Titus 2:13 which says:

“Waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.”

Or Philippians 3:20 which says:

“But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”

You can see another example of this type of prooftext in 1st Corinthians 1:7, but the basic idea is that believers should wait for and be expectant of Christ’s return.

There is no technical reason to believe that these verses are speaking of imminence. In other words, you can do a word study in Greek with the terms for “waiting for” or “await” and you will find that these words do not mean that no events will occur before something or another takes place, or that something could happen at any moment. They mean pretty much what they mean in English, that you are just…waiting for something.

In the case of this waiting for group of proof texts, a Pretribulationist would say that if you are eagerly waiting for the rapture, then the rapture must be able to happen at any moment, but it should be obvious, that that doesn’t logically follow.

You can eagerly await all kinds of things that are not imminent, You can eagerly await Christmas, but it doesn’t mean Christmas can occur at any moment, You can eagerly await a wedding, but it doesn’t mean that the wedding will happen at any moment.

You can see a biblical example that imminence is not the logical conclusion of eagerly awaiting something in 2nd Peter 3:13 where it says,

“But according to his promise we are waiting for (prosdokaō) new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”

Alan Kurschner: “The Apostle Peter says that we are to watch for and to expect the new heavens and new earth. But we know, and even Pretribulationists would admit, there are certain prophesied events that have to happen before the new heavens and a new earth. So, if to watch means imminence that then they would have to admit that the new heavens and a new earth are imminent events, which of course they would not admit.”

What the Bible is saying is that we should as Christians look forward to, wait for, and eagerly anticipate all the wonderful things that God has in store for us, including His return, so we can begin our Eternal Life and be with Him.

But to be expectant of something is obviously not the same thing as thinking it will happen at any moment.

The next group of prooftexts for imminence could be called, “Be good because Jesus is returning.”

This is probably the largest group of pretrib proof texts for imminence, which consist of verses like 1st John 2:28 which says:

“And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears, we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at His coming.”

Or Hebrews 10:24 and 25 which says:

“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”

There are a few more verses like this that are basically saying the same thing. That Christians should strive to live moral lives, to do “good works,” and that they should live those moral lives because Jesus is returning.

The argument Pretribbers would make here is that because the New Testament writers are telling people to be morally blameless because of Jesus’ return, it must mean that His return could happen at any moment without signs. In other words, according to Pretribbers, the New Testament writers were telling people that they should keep doing good, because if they don’t, they could get caught doing something bad, because Jesus could return at any moment, and surprise them while they were sinning.

Pretribbers have taken this concept very seriously and have even developed a doctrine about sanctification which uses this idea as its base. That is that the fear of being caught in the act of sinning from an imminent rapture keeps Christians on the straight and narrow path.

Alan Kurschner: “Pretribulational teacher John MacArthur claims that our very sanctification depends on imminence. He says, quote, ‘The hope of Christ imminent return is therefore the hinge on which a proper understanding of sanctification turns.’”

Ryan Habbena: “This position really does not accurately reflect how the Scriptures declare we are to seek to live godly in Christ Jesus.”

Charles Cooper: “I live the Christian life because I love God. The fact that His Son is coming for me is added benefit. But not knowing when He's going to come does not demure my desire to live holy at all.”

Alan Hultberg: “You better have more motivation than merely the fear that Jesus is going to come back to lead a life of committed discipleship. If that's your only reason for being committed to Christ or submitting to his lordship, then you've got a deficient view of discipleship.”

The question is though, is there a better explanation for why the Bible says that Christians should do good works because of Christ’s return?

The answer is resoundingly, yes! In fact, these verses which Pretribbers think are about imminence are really just a few more examples of one of the most prominent themes in the New Testament, which is that Christians should live godly lives in light of the fact that they have been given eternal life.

Let’s turn back to 2nd Peter 3 to show how this works:

“Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since [we] are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him.”

This verse shows us that the reason we are told to live godly lives is not because of an imminent rapture, or anything at all to do with being surprised by something unexpected. Rather, the point Peter is making is that the new heavens and new earth are a picture of the Eternal Life that a believer is promised. That is why we should live godly lives, because of the joy of our inheritance, because of the sureness of our resurrection to Eternal Life.

When you look at the other so called prooftexts in this group, it becomes clear the same theme here in 2nd Peter is in view, and that the only reason those verses even mention the rapture is because the rapture is the very picture of Eternal Life, it’s the moment believers become immortal, but the point is exactly the same.

Let me show a few more verses where it says the same thing in the supposed imminence prooftexts except the rapture is replaced with Eternal Life, so we can be sure this is less about the event of the rapture, but more about what the rapture represents i.e. our Eternal Life.

“For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” (Gal. 6:8-9).

Here Paul says that reaping Eternal Life is a reason Christians should not grow weary of doing good, not the rapture, not being scared of being caught by something sudden, but because of something sure, and wonderful.

I know some of you are thinking this is a little too legalistic for comfort, are we to do good works to obtain Eternal Life? Well, don’t worry because in the next verse Paul clears all that up.

It’s found in one of the most famous passages in the Bible, 1st Corinthians 15:58:

Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”

Since this verse comes directly after Paul was talking about the amazing gifts of immortality, “Death where is your sting” and all that, we can see that he is saying here that Christians do good works because Eternal Life is a sure thing, it’s real. Our good works are not in vain. We will be rewarded on That Day. We will live eternally in the new heavens and new earth with Jesus! That is the blessed hope of Christians.

In any case, I hope you can at least agree that whatever these verses mean, they are most certainly not giving us any information about whether or not there are prophesied events before the rapture. Hopefully, you are starting to see how absurd that particular idea is.

The next group of prooftexts for imminence is the easiest to dismiss. For some reason, these verses always appear in pretrib lists of prooftexts, but all they prove is that Christians will not go through the Wrath of God which of course, Prewrath and many other viewpoints also teach.

One example from this group would be 1st Thessalonians 5:9 which says:

“For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

In a recent major theological paper that was supposed to be about proving the Doctrine of Imminence, two of the six verses offered up in defense of imminence were these two verses which have literally nothing to do with imminence.

You can carefully read through the argumentation on these verses in that paper and see, he doesn’t even try to make an argument for imminence, he is literally just using these verses to show that the Church will not go through the Wrath of God and I guess hoping his readers will believe that somehow proves imminence.

The next type of prooftext for imminence is one of the strangest, but also one of the more popular. It could be called “the-rapture-is-a-good-thing” prooftext, and it comes from John 14:

Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.

So, you may be asking yourself, were does this talk about the rapture coming at any moment, or that there are no prophesized events that come before the rapture. Well don’t worry, you didn’t see it because they derive imminence from this verse in a way that is…less than obvious.

Their argument has two premises: 1) that Jesus implies that the rapture is a good thing when he says “Let not your hearts be troubled,” and 2) that the rapture is, in fact, what Jesus is talking about because He says “I will come again and will take you to myself,” which is a reference to the rapture.

So far, I am in total agreement with these premises—the rapture will be good, and this passage is about the rapture.

But the odd conclusion Pretribulationists draw from these two points is that because the rapture is considered good by Jesus, it therefore can’t have anything bad before it, namely the persecution of the Antichrist.

They insist that if Christians were to go through some kind of persecution before the rapture, then Jesus would not have implied that they should not be troubled about it.

First of all, the reason that Jesus told them not to “be troubled” was not because they were worried about persecution just before the rapture; He told them not to be troubled because of what they were talking about just before He said this:

“Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, where are you going?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward.’”

After Jesus tells them what He does, He then concludes it by saying, “And you know the way to where I am going.” So, we know that the “let not your hearts be troubled” statement was concerning their fear that they would not know where he was going, or how to follow Him there.

To further illustrate how absurd the idea is that Jesus was saying, “Let not your hearts be troubled” to assure His followers that they would not have to go through terrible persecution before the rapture, consider that most of these very disciples would be tortured to death not many years after this. In fact, millions of Christians have died in the past and will die because of persecution. The fact that the rapture is a good thing is in no way promising that the events just before it, will be without pain. And more to the point, this verse is not even in the same ballpark as a discussion about whether or not there will be prophesied events before the rapture, contextually.

Just in case you think we are cherry picking bad arguments for imminence, that paper I mentioned earlier opens up with this verse. It is the headliner argument he has for imminence, but all it really does is demonstrate how bankrupt the argument for imminence really is in modern Pretribulationism.

The next group of prooftexts are what I call “nearness prooftexts.” These are verses that speak of the rapture as being near or soon. A prominent example is in Philippians 4:5 which says:

“Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand.

And there are several others like this. But the doctrine being expressed in each of them is that the Lord’s return is near. And because it’s been around 2,000 years since the time these verses were written people are usually looking for a new definition of the word near (or at hand), and Pretribbers choose to define it as imminent.

Once again, we need to point out that the underlying Greek is of no help here.

The words being used don’t have a technical meaning of imminence or that something will happen at any moment, according to the lexicons they just mean that something is near.

Let’s look at one of the most famous passages, supposedly about imminence to see If we can tell if James is talking about an any moment rapture:

“Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door.”

This verse from James is clearly parallel to Jesus’s teaching of the fig tree parable in Matthew 24. We know this in part because of the word “near” and the idea that the judge is standing at the door. Both of which appear in the Fig Tree parable. But most of all we know its derivative because it is the exact same teaching about the same issue, the rapture.

In the Fig Tree parable, Jesus is saying that you will know that His return is near (engys) at the very door or gates (thyra) because you will see certain signs (namely the signs He just got done telling them about) in the same way that you can tell summer is near by studying the leaves on a fig tree. You will see the signs and know His return is near.

James is saying the same thing with his agricultural parallel. That the harvest of fruit (the rapture) cannot occur until certain things happen first “until it receives the early and late rains.” And so, they need to be patient and establish their hearts.

Obviously the harvest (or rapture) is not supposed to be understood as “imminent” in this illustration, as a number of things have to happen before crops can be harvested, not the least of which is the early and latter rains, and the actual growing of the crops. Even James, telling his readers to be patient three times in this passage is the exact opposite thing to teach if what he meant was that the rapture could occur at any moment.

While it is true that the rapture being spoken of as being near is a difficult thing to understand in light of it having been 2,000 years and counting since the prophecy was made. I don’t think it means we should go looking for a new definition of the word near.

I think we can take some instruction from this passage in 2nd Peter 3 which seems to suggest that any delay in events leading up to the rapture and the Day of the Lord, is to allow for more to be saved before the judgment begins:

"But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance" (2 Pet. 3:8-9).

And that brings us to our final group of prooftexts which is the “Thief in the Night” prooftexts.

There are several instances in Scripture in which the return of Jesus is spoken of like a thief:

"For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (1Thess. 5:2).

The idea is that if Jesus’ is return is unexpected, like a thief breaking into your house at night, then it must be imminent. Interestingly, this line of argumentation seems to have fallen out of popularity with Pretribbers recently, because if you follow the thief idea throughout the New Testament, it ironically ends up proving imminence wrong.

The reason for that is that all of these “coming like a thief” verses can be traced back to Jesus, Who in this section of the Olivet Discourse was talking about the need for His followers to watch for the signs of His return. He says:

Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into. Therefore, you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”

This is confirmed in spades all throughout the New Testament where the idea of the thief is specifically about the importance of watching for the signs of the return of Christ, and that the Lords return “like a thief” is only for those unbelievers who do not know or care to watch for it.”

Let’s take the very verse Pretribbers use in 1st Thessalonians 5 and put it back in context to show the utter uselessness of the thief idea to prove imminence:

"Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, "There is peace and security," then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober."

Alan Kurschner: “The Thief motif is not talking about an imminent event. What it is talking about is that when He does return, it's going to happen suddenly. That's different than the idea of imminence. Jesus’ return will come as a thief, but it's going to come as a thief to unbelievers, not believers.”

So, the return of Christ will only be like a thief for unbelievers. For them it will come suddenly and unexpectantly because they will not be watching for the signs of it. And the very idea of watching for signs of the rapture means that there are prophesied events before the rapture.

Charles Cooper: “If you tell me to watch. Then I've got to be watching for something.”

All the disciples, most of the early church, millions of Christians of all ages have been brutally tortured and killed for their faith. It is something Jesus over and over told us not only to expect but to rejoice in.

So, I can’t follow the logic that says that the rapture will prevent one small group of Christians from persecution—but not others.

Whatever the Blessed Hope is, it must be a blessed hope for all those martyrs of the past, as well. Which is, of course, the resurrection to Eternal Life itself.

I believe that like the man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz, simply revealing to Pretribbers what the most Pretribulationists really teach about imminence is enough to understand that the concept of an imminent rapture is a totally new, fraudulent doctrine that needs to quickly be abandoned for the good of the Church.