Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope...
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, NIV
Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
The first fourteen Church of the Nazarene Articles of Faith proclaim what Scripture has revealed about who God is, what God has done, and what God is doing. Having rehearsed our beliefs about the past and the present, the fifteenth Article turns our attention toward the future. The doctrine of the Second Coming looks toward the return of Christ and our final redemption at the end of the world.
With this shift in focus comes recognition that we tread on much more fragile territory. Instead of retelling the story of what has already happened and explaining how it impacts us today, we are now faced with the task of attempting to understand how God brings this grand narrative of redemption into its great and glorious conclusion.
As we study prophecy, we must be guided by the principle that Scripture should never be interpreted to mean something drastically different from what it meant to its original audience. Any interpretation should not only make sense to us, but should also have made sense to the original hearers. If the prophecy had not made sense to them in their time, they would not have been likely to preserve and pass it down from generation to generation.
The study of end times is called eschatology. The language of eschatology is robust and complicated, with numerous phrases and words used to describe different camps of belief. The large camps of belief are categorized into pre-millennialism, post-millennialism, and a-millennialism. Within the group of pre-millennialists, we find those who believe in a secret rapture, and those believers are often further categorized as pre-, mid-, and post-tribulationists.
Instead of attempting to define each of those positions, let’s consider some of the questions that divide these camps:
- Will there be a literal 1,000-year reign of Christ on the earth (a millennial kingdom)?
- Will this millennial reign be brought about by Christ’s return?
- Or will Christ reign through the church at work throughout the world, bringing about the kingdom of God in reality for one thousand years prior to the physical return of Christ?
- Did the events in Revelation partly occur in AD 70 with the fall of the temple and of Jerusalem? Or have none of the events in the book of Revelation yet occurred? When Jesus returns, will He be escorted to earth by the believers to set up His kingdom, or will He rapture them to Heaven while a tribulation is meted upon the wicked?
- If there is a tribulation of the unsaved, will Jesus steal His bride away before, during, or after?
- Is the tribulation something endured by non-believers? Or is it a great tribulation of the saints?
- Is it possible to know any dates? Or even to recognize the signs of the times?
These questions are studied and debated by laypeople, pastors, and theologians all over the world. Scholars and theologians who have studied for years arrive at different conclusions. Pastors attempt to interpret those conclusions and provide them to the laypeople who are also surrounded with all sorts of popular theology and literature on the topic – much of which is not consistent with a Wesleyan approach to scriptural interpretation.
Sometimes people are surprised to learn that the Church of the Nazarene doesn’t require members to belong to a particular eschatological camp. Instead, our Article of Faith 15 (Manual) focuses on the core essentials:
Second Coming of Christ
15. We believe that the Lord Jesus Christ will come again; that we who are alive at His coming shall not precede them that are asleep in Christ Jesus; but that, if we are abiding in Him, we shall be caught up with the risen saints to meet the Lord in the air, so that we shall ever be with the Lord. (Matthew 25:31-46; John 14:1-3; Acts 1:9-11; Philippians 3:20-21; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Titus 2:11- 14; Hebrews 9:26-28; 2 Peter 3:3-15; Revelation 1:7-8; 22:7-20)
As important as it is to notice what our article of faith does say, it is important to notice what it doesn’t mention at all. For example: notice that there is no specific mention of a secret rapture of the church. Some might ask, “Isn’t ‘caught up . . . to meet the Lord in the air’ the same as a secret rapture?” Not necessarily.
Just because there is a meeting in the air, the article does not state where Jesus and the saints go after the meeting. Scholars have pointed out that the word for “meet” used in 1 Thessalonians 4 is the same word that is used to describe a welcoming committee that goes out to meet a visiting dignitary and to escort him back into town. In that case, it might not be that the saints are raptured away, but that the saints go to meet the Lord in the air, welcoming Him back to earth to establish His kingdom.
Our article of faith doesn’t take a position on this one way or another. We also don’t take an official position about what is meant by the great tribulation, or about the millennial kingdom. Much is left unsaid in our article of faith - leaving freedom for study and a multitude of opinions.
It may be tempting to wish for a single, authorized view on eschatology. However, it is helpful to remember that there are countless scholars throughout the centuries who have come to far different conclusions about these matters.
Does this mean that we should stop caring? Does it mean we should ignore any discussion of end times and the return of Christ? I don’t think so. We should absolutely study scripture. No harm exists in exploring the different theories about how this age might come to a conclusion. But let’s remember that for the most part, these are untestable theories that should not rise to the level of dogma.
We should be careful of being so focused on various eschatological theories that we stop focusing on how to live our lives today.
At the same time, we recognize that while there is disagreement among scholars and theologians, we can come to solid agreement on the things that are stated in our article of faith. Namely that Christ will return, the dead will be raised, the risen and living saints will be caught up to meet Him in the air, and that we will always be with the Lord. These are the solid points of faith in the Second Advent of Christ that are non-negotiable.
Much of the wording for our article of faith is drawn from Paul’s letters to the believers in Thessalonica. Believing that Christ would return in their lifetime, these saints were concerned about those who had died before the second coming. In the midst of their grief and doubt, Paul offers them assurance of Christ’s return, and resurrection hope for all who died in Christ.
Encourage one another with these words: Christ will come again.
Are the skies cloudy and gray? Christ will come again.
Does the load seem too heavy to bear? Christ will come again.
Are you grieving? Christ will come again.
Are you sick? Christ will come again.
Are you in distress? Christ will come again.
Are you discouraged by evil’s influence in the world? Christ will come again.
When it seems like darkness and death are winning, when it seems like the forces of evil are too strong, when the clouds are covering the sky: look to the east, for Christ will come again.
Put in that context, our article of faith is not wishy-washy at all, but a solid rock of hopeful optimism that allows us to look toward the future, even in uncertain times. Some might wish that our church had taken a position on pre-, post-, or a-millennialism, or pre-, mid-, or post-tribulationalism. We might want an official dogmatic position on the end-times so that when someone asks “what do Nazarenes believe about the rapture?” we can answer them. Instead, by not taking a decisive stand on divisive doctrinal issues, we have done more to focus on the main thing: Christ will come again.
After all, when will we know who is right about the millennial kingdom? At the end of the age, after it all happens. When will we know who is right about raptures and tribulations? At the end of the age, after it all happens.
Consider this: At the end of the age, after it all happens, we won’t be sitting around in a room discussing who was right and who was wrong. No pins, keychains, or necklaces will be given to those who figured out all the details. Instead, we will be united together with Christ Jesus for eternity.
The far more important questions are these: How do we live in the meantime? How does our belief in Christ’s return affect how we live today?
Our call is to live faithfully in the right-here and the right-now. Informed by the hopeful certainty that Christ will come again, our tasks are the same as they have always been: to love God and neighbor, to proclaim good tidings of great joy, to care for God’s creation, to welcome the stranger, to provide for the orphan and widow, and to faithfully live out God’s mission in our present-day lives.
Excerpted from a 2004 sermon at the Cape Elizabeth, Maine, Church of the Nazarene.
Jon Twitchell currently serves the Nazarene Foundation as a vice president of Gift Planning.
Holiness Today, Jan/Feb 2017