James Grant, pastor of First Baptist Church of Rossville, TN (and former college roommate of BTW’s Justin Taylor) has posted an article on a passage that “closed the door on dispensationalism” for him, 2 Thess. 2. In this passage, he argues, there is no mention of a pre-tribulational rapture, and there is no warrant for “a two-fold ‘coming’ of Christ”. He envisions Paul paraphrasing the chapter like this:
I know that you have heard that Jesus has come and you missed it. Don’t worry. Jesus will not come for you until two ’signs’ take place first: rebellion and the man of lawlessness. Jesus will not come to gather you to Himself until that takes place first.
In other words, Jesus, after the rebellion and the revelation of the man of lawlessness, will then gather Christians to Himself. This, Grant asserts, is an argument against a rapture from the Day of the Lord. Therefore, since one of the pillars of dispensational theology is a pretribulational rapture, dispensationalism is, based on this text, unbiblical.
I don’t think that the argument is as air-tight as Grant would think, however. Carefully reading the text would show more evidence in favor of a pretribulational rapture. In the larger context of the letter, Paul mentions the sufferings of the Thessalonian church (1:3-5). Because of this, Paul anticipates a day when Jesus returns and the wrath of God will be poured out on their persecutors in vindication (1:6-9).
This persecution seems to the be occasion for the rumors that the church had received. Amidst all the trouble, people started spreading the theory that the day of the Lord had come (2:2). Notice that this is the rumor that was spreading. Paul addresses the rumor in chapter 2:3-12, which is a part of the greater doctrine of the coming of the Lord and his gathering of the saints (2:1-2). Paul does not initially deal with the gathering; he initially deals with the rumor concerning the day of the Lord. This is important in understanding the contextual message.
Paul says, “That day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, adn the man of lawlessness is revealed” (v.3). Which day? He’s talking about the day of the Lord (v.2), the day of His retribution mentioned in chapter 1. When the rebellion and the man of lawlessness appear, we know that Jesus will appear next. I agree that rapture is not mentioned in this text, but the reason is not because it does not exist. The reason is that it is not Paul’s intent. He intends to discuss the timing of Jesus’ coming for what we call “the day of the Lord”.
I would say, however, that Paul does mention deliverance from that judgment for the saints in the following verses. “God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth” (v.13). In other words, the Thessalonians would not face the wrath of God because of the electing purposes of God to deliver them from His wrath. By the Spirit’s sanctifying and their faith in the Gospel, they will be saved. Also, “To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v.14). We were not called to His wrath; we were called to share in the glory of Christ! These are words to comfort and motivate the saints (cf. 2:15-17).
I therefore do not believe that 2 Thessalonians 2 rules out a pretribulational rapture. This would be an argument from silence. Just because it is not mentioned does not mean it does not exist. The text, however, is first an argument concerning the events leading up to the day of the Lord. Paul then encourages these persecuted Thessalonians that they have been chosen by the Lord to be saved from such judgment. Such a hope is consistent with pretribulational doctrine.