The Expectation and Logic of a ‘Literal Catching Up’ at AD 70
By Walt Hibbard
Surrounding the discussion of what actually happened at the Parousia of Jesus Christ at the focal point of eschatological fulfillment, concerns the nature of this magnificent and long-awaited consummation of all that was written in Moses and the Prophets. There seem to be two main schools of thinking on this subject:
- The Christians living in that day remained on earth throughout this Coming or Presence, did not experience any tangible relief from their persecution at the hands of the Jews and Romans, and those who were not martyred or taken captive, were allowed to die a natural death from various causes, OR
- The Christians living in that day were literally removed from this earth, being caught away, or raptured by the Lord Jesus and taken to their newly-prepared home in Heaven.
The applicable Scripture passages for these two views are found, primarily, in John 14:3; I Cor. 15:50-56; II Cor. 5:1-4; I Thess. 4:14-17; II Thess. 1:3-7. The conclusions that both camps arrive at depend on whether a figurative or covenant interpretation is given to these verses or, on the other hand, whether a literal hermeneutic is applied. The big questions, therefore, are these: Which interpretation more closely fulfills the texts presented above? Further, which view seems to fit both the first century historical setting and the normal expectations of the Christians clinging hard to these promises?
Both of these questions have already been adequately answered by Edward E. Stevens in his book, Expectations Demand a First Century Rapture, and in Ian D. Harding’s book, Taken to Heaven in AD 70. So I will not attempt to repeat what these authors have already done so well. Rather, I want to take a different approach.
The balance of this brief article will occupy itself with supporting the literal view by showing that the literal fulfillment was the manner in which all the major New Testament soteriological and eschatological prophecies were consummated, beginning with the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.
The Incarnation: The taking upon Himself of human flesh by God the Son, Jesus Christ, was obviously an historically observable event. We have the Babe in Bethlehem, resting in a literal stable, with nearby farm animals, and literal shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night. We have the frightened Herod seeking a way to destroy who he thought was a threat to his political reign, and bringing death and tragedy to his own countrymen in the process. Yes, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ was fulfilled literally.
The Baptism of Jesus: At the beginning of His ministry, Jesus submitted to the baptism of John the Baptist so that all righteousness might be fulfilled (re: Matt. 3:13-17). Jesus literally was baptized in water, saw the Spirit of God descending and alighting on Him, and heard the voice of the Father in Heaven expressing His words of pleasure. This was a literal water baptism, with many spiritual overtones and implications.
Gethsemane and Mock Trial: The sufferings of Jesus in the Garden were excruciating demonstrations of the enormous suffering as He was approaching His last days on earth. The trial before Pontius Pilate, with the Jewish chief priests and elders plotting His death, was as unjust a trial as history every witnessed. An innocent Man placed before His accusers, false witnesses brought in, even Pilate finding no fault in Him, nevertheless was pressured by the Jewish leaders to pronounce that dreadful sentence of death. These horrible events were real, literal, historically-verifiable happenings that drove the action to the next crucial and redemptively-necessary event in God’s amazing plan for the salvation of His people. Yes, this was literal suffering, both physical and spiritual.
The Crucifixion of Jesus: Then came the climax and focal point of His Incarnation; to die for the sins of His people, satisfy God’s justice in meeting the Law’s demands, and fulfilling all of the Old Covenant’s requirements for the putting away of sin by the sacrifice of Himself, which the sacrifice of the blood of bulls and lambs could never do. The intense suffering came about through the vehicle of the most extreme method of criminal execution ever devised by sinful human beings, crucifixion on a cross. This never-to-be-repeated saga was literal, fulfilling Old Covenant prophecy, but with many on-going redemptive effects and implications that would be central to the salvation interests over the entire past, then-present, and future generations of mankind, and would be forever efficacious. And it was literally accomplished before the very literal eyes of all to see. It was historically verifiable; it was an event that happened on this earth.
The Resurrection of Jesus: The third day God raised Him from the dead, for death could not hold Him. He had paid the penalty for the sins of God elect people, and justice under God’s Law had taken place. He was raised in the same body that He was crucified in, with the nail prints and wound in His side manifested for His disciples to see. It was a literal bodily resurrection of the Son of God. He was raised to life, never to die again, and He was seen by over 500 brethren at the same time; indeed, He had conquered death! And He became the firstfruits of all those who would follow in His train, for all whom the Father had given Him, to be the people of God forever!
The Ascension of Jesus: Forty days later, after giving ample proof of His victory over death, Jesus Christ ascended to Heaven as His disciples watched Him disappear into a cloud surrounding Him. He was the victorious Christ, ascending to the Throne of His Father in Heaven. The Beloved Disciple John recorded His words in John 14:2 “In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.” He ascended to present His efficacious sacrifice to His Father in an action of fulfilled accomplishment with respect to God’s Law, and to prepare a place for His chosen people to reside for all eternity. This was a literal Ascension of the visible Christ from this earth to the Heavenly realm.
The Parousia of Jesus: As the final pages of God’s prophetic disclosure began to unfold with the Roman armies battering at the gates of Jerusalem, the time of Jacob’s trouble bearing down upon the now-apostate city of Jerusalem, and with the Book of Revelation being disclosed before their eyes in stark reality, there was nothing remaining but calamity for what was once a great Jewish nation. God’s judgment had struck the generation of those who crucified God’s own Son sent to be the Messiah of Old Testament prophecy. It was a literal judgment of a literally God-defying people. But it was also a time of great expectancy for that small remnant of faithful believers in Jesus Christ, in Jerusalem and in the known Roman world of that day. These were God’s New Covenant people and those promises of relief from Jewish and Roman persecution that would soon be literally fulfilled. The Second Coming of Christ, the Resurrection of the Dead from out of Hades, the Judgment of the Sheep and the Goats, the Marriage Supper of the Lamb – all would take place literally and coinciding with the Roman armies march, immediately after the tribulation of those days. For then “the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ shall rise first. When we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air (I Thess. 4:16-17). This was a literal “catching up” of all true believers on earth at that time. They were taken from this earth, just as Jesus had promised, “And 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 14:3). They were literally given “rest” or “relief” from their persecutors (II Thess. 1:6-8), but note carefully that this promise was given only to those Christians who were living at the time; not to believers in forthcoming generations, who must historically live out their lives before joining that mighty thong of Christians in heaven with Jesus. And note that the promise our Lord gave to these first century believers was that they would be “caught up” to meet the Lord in the air – from off the face of this earth. They were gone!
Little wonder that the archives of post AD70 Christian literature is missing from the annals of early writers for perhaps 60 years or more after that magnanimous and historically-unique event. It was a literary vacuum caused by no seasoned Christian leaders in the church to write, but instead, newly converted, immature believers left to propagate the church leading into the centuries ahead. No wonder the church succumbed to rank doctrinal error, even displayed in the writings of the early Church Fathers. Surely, if the living believers of AD 70 had remained on the earth, not only would the I Thess. 4 prophecy not have been fulfilled, but these amazing early church errors would likely have never gotten a foothold in the church, occasioning spiritual declension for the next 1500 years of church history. There can be little doubt that the “catching up” to be with the Lord was literal, and not limited to a mere covenant or positional change, however true that may be from other aspects, occasioned by Christ’s Parousia.
Many preterists today are finding it difficult to believe that the AD 70 Rapture took place in a literal fashion. It is the purpose of this brief article to set forth the logic, or if you will, the inspired precedence of the Second Coming being a literal happening, even as all of the previous promises relating to salvation were also fulfilled literally. It should come as no great surprise that God has continually displayed His consummative events in such a manner that they would be logically and openly displayed, at least to the very same people to whom the promises were originally given. Nor was it necessary for our God to satisfy every possible speculation that might arise in the minds of unbelievers surrounding these catastrophic first century events. But from reading the promises from the lips of our Lord and His disciples that certain people or groups of people would actually witness Jesus’ Second Coming, we as Christians living today are required as believers in our Lord Jesus’ promises, by faith, to accept them as requiring a literal fulfillment. To do otherwise, would be to forsake the nature of fulfillment of the earlier major soteriological and eschatological events and say that the Second Coming, alone and for the first time, did not achieve a literal fulfillment that enabled the specific promises to find expression in a historically meaningful way. I, for one, do not wish to embark down that path!