Dr.Robert H. Gundry was a professor for many years at Westmont College in SantaBarbara, California. Having gown up in adispensational, pretribulational environment, he set his hand to developing anew type of posttribulationism that some have called dispensationalposttribulationism. Dr. Gundry has thedubious distinction of being one of the few ever booted out of the EvangelicalTheological Society because of his use of a liberal approach to the NewTestament called source criticism. Butit was his groundbreaking book, The Church and The Tribulation(Zondervan, 1973), which saw his innovative, although errant, view ofposttribulationism come upon the American evangelical scene. Dr. Gundry is most likely the leadingacademic posttribulationist, even though he disagrees with much of theargumentation of those who have gone before him.
Someyears later, Dr. Gundry revisited the issue of posttribulationism when he wrotea book called First The Antichrist: Why Christ Won’t Come Before The Antichrist Does (Baker, 1997). The title of his new book reinforces thepoint often made by pretribulationists that posttribulationists cannot followthe New Testament command to wait for Christ (1 Cor. 1:7; Phil. 3:20; 1 Thess.1:10; Titus 2:13; Heb. 9:28; 1 Pet. 1:13; Jude 21), because their system tellsthem to look for antichrist, who must come before Christ is able toreturn. Dr. Gundry told me in a personalletter that he was motivated to revisit the subject once again by an article onthe Pseudo-Ephraem pretrib rapture statement written up in Dallas TheologicalSeminary’s theological journal called Bibliotheca Sacra (July/September1995) by Timothy Demy and I. This isreflected in his book where he has a postscript in which he attempts to dealwith the fourth century pretrib rapture statement of Pseudo-Ephraem.
FourKinds of Posttribulationism
Beforewe examine specifically Dr. Gundry’s new formulation of posttribulationism, itshould be noted, as the late Dr. John F. Walvoord has brought to our attention,that, to posit a whole new approach to posttribulationism is to admit that theothers have failed and fallen short of what Scripture is teaching.
Anotherof Dr. Walvoord’s insights includes the observation that there is a single kindof approach to developing and defending pretribulationism. What does he mean? When it comes to pre-trib rationale, thereare not multiple systems that have reached the sameconclusion—pretribulationism. In otherwords, all pretribulationists use the same hermeneutic, generally the sameexegesis and theologically the same thought process in arriving atpretribulationism. Dr. Walvoord believedthat this detail hints at the fact that pretribulationism is likely what theBible teaches.
Onthe other hand, posttribulationism has four distinct ways in which they arguefor their belief. Dr. Walvoord use tosay that if any single one of these four approaches were true, then it wouldmean that the other three systems were wrong and would contradict the form ofposttribulationism that was posited as true. In other words, there could be incorrect views of posttribulationism,even if the view was posited as being correct. While there is only a single form of pretribulationism, which if true,would make sense since the Bible teaches a single view on any issue.
Dr.Walvoord has classified the four kinds of posttribulationism as classical,semi-classical, futuristic and dispensational. (John F. Walvoord, The Blessed Hope and the Tribulation(Zondervan, 1976), pp. 16–19) “In thelast century a number of varieties of posttribulationism have emerged, some ofthem quite recent in their major tenets,” declares Dr. Walvoord. “In general, they cover the gamut of thepossibilities.” (Walvoord, BlessedHope, p. 17) Note the followingbreakout by Dr. Walvoord:
1) ClassicPosttribulationism—“J. Barton Payne, in his The Imminent Appearing ofChrist, (J. Barton Payne, The Imminent Appearing of Christ[Eerdmans, 1962]) advocates a return to what he says was the position of theearly church, that is, a premillennial and posttribulational point of viewwhich spiritualizes the tribulation and identifies it with the contemporaryproblems of Christianity. Comparativelyfew have followed Payne, however, though a tendency to spiritualize the periodof tribulation is a general characteristic of posttribulationism.” (Walvoord, BlessedHope, p. 17)
2) Semi-ClassicPosttribulationism—“AlexanderReese, in his The Approaching Advent of Christ, (Alexander Reese, TheApproaching Advent of Christ [Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1937]) presents themost comprehensive defense of posttribulationism.” (Walvoord, Blessed Hope,p. 17) “He offers evidence that theresurrection of the church occurs at the same time as the resurrection ofRevelation 20. Major emphasis is placedon terms like ‘appearing,’ ‘the day,’ ‘the end,’ and ‘revelation’ as technicalterms that relate the rapture to the second coming as the terminus of thepresent age. Reese's arguments have notbeen surpassed by other posttribulationists, but later writers offer otherapproaches.” (John F. Walvoord,“Posttribulationism Today, Part I: TheRise of Posttribulational Interpretation, Bibliotheca Sacra(January–March 1975; Vol. 132, No. 525), p. 22)
“Allthe views previously mentioned consider the church already in the tribulationand identify the trials of the church through the centuries as the fulfillmentof prophecies of a time of trouble preceding the second advent of Christ.” (Walvoord, Blessed Hope, p. 18)
3) FuturisticPosttribulationism—“George Laddwhose work, The Blessed Hope, (George E. Ladd, The Blessed Hope[Eerdmans, 1956]) promotes the view that the great tribulation is stillfuture. While other views ofposttribulationism could conceivably be harmonized with the idea that Christcould return any moment, Ladd considers it inevitable that at least aseven-year period (described in Dan. 9:27) separates the church today from therapture and the second advent of Christ which are aspects of the sameevent. Although Ladd's argument buildslargely on the fact of the history of the doctrine and extolsposttribulationism as the norm for orthodoxy through the centuries, heintroduces a new realism into the picture in adopting a literal futuretribulation. His views have somewhatbeen qualified by his later writings, but in general he seems to retain afuturistic view of the great tribulation with its corresponding doctrine thatChrist's return could not be any day, but that it can only follow the yearsrequired to fulfill prophecies relating to the tribulation.” (Walvoord, BlessedHope, pp. 18-19)
4 DispensationalPosttribulationism—“Robert Gundry in his work, The Church and theTribulation. Gundry, following thelead of many premillenarians, distinguishes Israel and the church as separateentities and attempts a literal interpretation of many of the prophecies thatdeal with the endtimes. In advancing histheory he refutes most of the posttribulationists who have preceded him. Working with these premises, he endeavors toestablish a new doctrine of posttribulationism which he tries to harmonize witha literal interpretation of prophecy.” (Walvoord, Blessed Hope, p. 19)
“Gundry'swork poses a number of theological problems both for other posttribulationistsand for contemporary pretribulationists. Because his arguments, in the main, are new and establish a new form ofposttribulationism never advanced before, his work is a milestone in thevariety of interpretations which have characterized posttribulationism throughthe centuries and creates further need for study of posttribulationism in thehistory of the church.” (Walvoord, “Posttribulationism Today,” p. 24)
Dr.Gundry’s new form of posttribulationism is basically an attempt to applyconsistently literal interpretation, from a posttribulational perspective. Since he is a really smart guy, I think hisattempt demonstrates that it cannot be done. Even though he has a number of similarities with older posttribulationaltheories, he often tires to take a different tact on many issues. Too many exegetical, theological, and logicalgymnastics must be employed in his attempt to pull off such an approach. So what are the features of his brand of posttribulationism?
Mostposttribulationists blend the rapture and the second coming into a singleevent. However, Dr. Gundry, likepretribulationists, separates the two events, but only by a matter of hours atthe end of the tribulation. Dr. Gundrytries to redefine imminence as not meaning that Christ could return atany-moment, but, strangely, “to look forward to His return after the events ofthe tribulation” (Gundy, Church and The Tribulation, p. 43). He is looking for the antichrist, not forChrist. When it comes to thetribulation, Dr. Gundry was a pioneer in chopping the seventieth week of Danielinto different subsections. (Thisapproach paved the way for people like Robert Van Kampen and his development ofthe three-quarters rapture theory.) Heplaces the day of the Lord at the end of the seven-year period, instead of seeingit as encompassing the entire time.
Typicalof many posttribulationists, Dr. Gundry argues that the antichrist must firstbe revealed before the tribulation can begin, according to 2 Thessalonians2. This is not what the passage teaches,as I shall demonstrate below. He arguesthat only a part of the seventieth week of Daniel is the wrath of God, whilethe other parts are the wrath of man and Satan. In an attempt to be unique among posttribulationists, Dr. Gundry, on theone hand argues for a distinction between Israel and the church, but on theother hand, is often found to blend the two into a single redeemed people. It is logically impossible to say that Israeland the church are distinct, but then speak of separate redeemed peoples duringthe tribulation, as does Dr. Gundry.
Oneof the classic problems for any posttribulationists is where do mortals comefrom that will populate the millennium? Virtually all posttribulationists don’t even try to answer this stickyproblem. However, Dr. Gundry is one ofthe few to attempt an answer. Theproblem is that if all living believers are translated at the second advent,which is what posttribulationists are saying, then from whence come those whomScripture clearly teaches will enter into the kingdom and repopulate theearth? He says, that the Jewishpopulation will come from the 144,000, who will not be saved during thetribulation. Gentiles will come fromsome unbelievers who somehow escape death or judgment, according to Dr.Gundry. This is an amazing position andcertainly goes against the clear teaching of Scripture.
Anotherof Dr. Gundry’s posttribulational teachings is that the rapture will be anevent in which the church will go out to meet the Lord in the air, at therapture, in order to immediately return with Him to planet earth at the secondcoming. I will show this to be an errantteaching.
Problemswith Dr. Gundry’s Posttribulationism
Manyof Dr. Gundry’s innovative arguments are built upon erroneous fine points ofdefinition and exegesis, combined with subtle presuppositions that must berealized in order to see the error of his argument. When one sifts through his arguments forposttribulationism and against pretribulationism, we find that his methodology,logic, or exegesis does not stand up. Dr. Gundry too often argues from unproved assumptions, which are reallyassertions, by overwhelming the reader with details that too often do notprovide the necessary proof of his argument.
Forexample, the belief that Paul’s use of “meet” in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 is atechnical term was taken by posttribulationists like Dr. Gundry as a knock-outpunch against the pretribulational understanding of Scripture. Dr. Gundry alleges: “This connotation points toward our rising tomeet Christ in order to escort Him immediately back to earth” (Gundy, Churchand The Tribulation, p. 104). Whatis he saying? Dr. Gundry is saying thatthe Greek word for “meet” in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 is a technical term, used ofan arriving dignitary or special guest, approaching the city of hisdestination. Residents would then go outto meet him and accompany him back to his destination. It is alleged that to do justice to the Greekword, Christ’s destination would be earth, not back to heaven; we would meethim in the clouds and accompany him back to earth, says this view.
Latentwithin the above belief are false assumptions that must be corrected beforeanyone, pre-trib or anti-pre-trib, can respond to such a question. Those, like Dr. Gundry, holding this viewmake a big-time error is their belief that the Greek word for “meet” is atechnical term. (A technical term, asused here, refers to a word that would have specific connotations implicit inthe word itself.) Here we have anexample of a widely held belief in academic circles that is categoricallywrong. So what is the error and how didit get started?
Origin of The Error
Takingthe last question first, we can trace the source of the error to a Germanscholar named Erik Peterson. Petersonwrote an article in 1930 (Erik Peterson, “Die Einholung des Kyrios,” ZST1 (1930), pp. 682-702) saying that the Greek word “to meet” (apantêsis)“is to be understood as a technical term for a civic custom of antiquitywhereby a public welcome was accorded by a city to important visitors.” Interestingly, it was in 1930 thatEnglish-speaking scholars Moulton and Milligan published their famous work onextra-biblical use of Greek vocabulary around the time of the NewTestament. Moulton and Milligan sayabout “to meet” (apantêsis): “Theword seems to have been a kind of technical term for the official welcome of anewly arrived dignitary . . .” (James Hope Moulton and George Milligan, TheVocabulary of the Greek Testament Illustrated from the Papyri and othernon-Literary Sources, [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1930], p. 53)
Afew years ago, I was at a national conference when premillennial,posttribulationist, Rodney Stortz, attempted to dismiss the possibility of apre-trib rapture by stating the “technical term” argument of “to meet.” In a chart I picked up at the conference,under a reference to 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Stortz said, “The word ‘meet’in these two verses is a technical Greek military term describing the returningmilitary hero. The people used to go out‘to meet’ him and escort him back to the city.” (Rodney D.Stortz, The Second Coming of Christ Prophetic Time Line, (published byTwin Oaks Presbyterian Church of Ballwin, Missouri, 1999), panel three.)
Iwill make a few quick points before I get into the heart of my rebuttal. First, neither Peterson nor Moulton andMilligan say that the Greek word “to meet” (apantêsis) includes thenotion of returning with the dignitary to the place from which the greetingparty came from. The idea of returningfrom whence one came appears to be a notion added by overly zealousposttribulationists in an effort to disprove pretribulationism. In fact, Milligan did not believe that theword “meet” implies that the dignitary return back with the greeters as notedin his commentary on 1 Thessalonians:
The thought is that the ‘raptured’ saints will be carried upinto the ‘air,’ as the interspace between heaven and earth, where they willmeet the descending Lord, and then either escort him down to the earth inaccordance with O.T. prophecy, or more probably in keeping with thegeneral context accompany Him back to heaven. (emphasis added) (GeorgeMilligan, St. Paul’s Epistles to The Thessalonians (New York: Macmillan,1908), p. 61.)
This is why F. F. Bruce warns: “there is nothing in the word apantêsisor in this context which demands this interpretation; it cannot bedetermined from what is said here whether the Lord (with his people) continueshis journey to earth or returns to heaven.” (F. F. Bruce, 1 & 2Thessalonians (Word Biblical Commentary 45; Waco: Word, 1982), pp. 102-03.)
Second,even if “meet” was a technical term in the way that some posttribulationistsinsist, which it is clearly not as will be demonstrated shortly, it would notfollow that their return to earth would have to be immediate. Why could not, based upon a supposed meaningof the word, the return occur a little over seven years later?
Third,“meet” cannot be established as a technical term for the formal reception of adignitary from New Testament use, as Rodney Stortz claims, (Stortz, Prophetic Time Line, panelthree; also see Rodney Stortz, cassette tape recording “The Rapture,” Tape 2from the series The Second Coming of Christ [Twin Oaks PresbyterianChurch of Ballwin, Missouri, 1999]). since only two of the four instances may meanthat. It cannot be established from anoverall biblical use of Old and New Testaments. (For a total refutation of thepossibility that “meet” can be established as a technical term from the OldTestament see G. H. Lang, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Miami Springs,FL: Conley & Schoettle, 1985), pp. 262-65.) Thus, if there isany basis for saying that it should be understood as a technical term in 1Thessalonians 4:17 the case would have to be made from its use inextra-biblical instances. Yet, thiscannot be done either, as I am about to demonstrate.
A Posttribulationist Provides Rebuttal
Inthe summer of 1995, I was in a seminary library looking through the most recentreleases of theological journals when I noticed a very interesting article.(Michael R. Cosby, “Hellenistic Formal Receptions and Paul’s Use of Apantêsisin 1 Thessalonians 4:17,” Bulletin for Biblical Research (Vol. 4; 1994),pp. 15-34.) It was written by aposttribulationist who rebuts the notion that “to meet” is a technical term atall. Cosby confesses that while acollege student he was dissuaded from pretribulationism toposttribulationism. Cosby tells us,
while doing my doctoral studies, . . . I translated ErikPeterson’s 1930 article . . . His citations of material from ancient Greekpapyri, inscriptions, and literature found fertile soil . . . I was completelypersuaded by his explanation that Paul’s use of apantêsis in 1 Thess.4:17 presupposed a well known custom: the Hellenistic formal reception.
. . . Whilereviewing Peterson’s assertions, I discovered to my horror that some of themare simply not persuasive. . . . What began as an effort to strengthenPeterson’s argument became a disturbing exercise in scholarly honesty. (Cosby,“Hellenistic Formal Receptions,” p. 17.)
Whatdid Cosby find when he applied honesty to his scholarly research? He found the following: “One cannot responsibly claim that apantêsisis a technical term on the basis of its percentage of use in passagesdescribing formal receptions. . . . Sometimes apantêsis describes aformal greeting of a dignitary, but often it does not. . . .” He continues, “. . . Yet only a minority ofthe uses of these terms describes formal receptions. . . .” (Cosby,“Hellenistic Formal Receptions,” pp. 20-21.)
Cosby further states the result ofhis findings:
The dominatescholarly understanding of apantêsis in 1 Thess. 4:17, based on the workof Peterson, does not sufficiently account for the differences between Paul’swords and description of receptions of dignitaries. All of the main elements of Hellenisticreceptions found in ancient papyri, inscriptions and literature are missingfrom 1 Thess. 4:15-17. Asserting thatPaul assumed his readers would automatically fill in such details lacks cogencywhen we compare Paul’s words with these accounts. If he truly assumed his audience wouldpresuppose these details, then he deliberately reversed most of the usualelements. Claiming that apantêsiswas a technical term carrying with it a standard set of expectations is notconvincing. Furthermore, even if oneassumes that Paul understood apantêsis in this way, the evidencedemonstrates that he did not read such meaning wholesale into his descriptionof the Parousia. (Cosby, “Hellenistic Formal Receptions,” pp. 28-29.)
Whatdoes Cosby mean by that last sentence? He concludes that Paul had a greater tendency, when he uses technicalterms from the Greek language in general, to stand them on end. That is, Paul would use them as a polemicagainst the stock meaning of the day by reversing a latent implication. Cosby explains:
Peterson, therefore,was incorrect in reading the Hellenistic formal reception into 1 Thess.4:13-17. The text itself does notsupport his assertion that Paul’s use of apantêsis in 4:17 brings withit the entire baggage of the custom of greeting dignitaries. And if it did, we should admit that Pauldeliberately reverses conventional expectations, which would actuallyfit what we know about his use of other conventions. (Cosby, “HellenisticFormal Receptions,” p. 31.)
Sowhy have some scholars thought that this was a technical term supporting theirbelief that “to meet” carried their suggested meaning? Cosby provides the following suggestion:
the details come much more from Christian visions of theParousia than from Greco-Roman models. Interpreting Paul’s words in light of descriptions of Hellenisticreceptions is helpful, but not as Peterson and others have envisioned. Such passages provide insight into thesociological background for 1 Thess. 4:13-17, but for a reason the opposite ofwhat Peterson believed. Instead of beinga cipher for understanding what Paul meant through the supposed use of atechnical term, they function more as a foil—a loose pattern to play againstwhen describing the coming of the heavenly king. (Cosby, “Hellenistic FormalReceptions,” p. 31.)
Posttribulationist,Cosby, has demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt and concluded “thatPeterson’s exegesis was eisegesis.” (Cosby, “Hellenistic Formal Receptions,” p.32.) 1 Thessalonians 4:17 does notspecifically say or imply the direction of Christ’s party once we all meet inthe air. 1 Thessalonians 4:17 does say, “we will always be with the Lord.” I take it from John 14:1-3, which I believeis a parallel passage to 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, that Christ takes us backwith Him to the Father’s house. Thus,what 1 Thessalonians 4:17 lacks, John 14:1-3 supplies. After more than seven years, Christ, Hisbride, and the elect angels will then return to planet earth, not as adignitary to be welcomed by the world, but as One who returns as a conqueringjudge. This is an example of how Dr.Gundry uses false assumptions, like the misinformation he posits on “to meet”and then snows his readers with an equally false conclusion.
Anotherexample of Dr. Gundry’s slight-of-hand approach is found in his dealing with 2Thessalonians 2. He takes a passage thatdoes not even mention “watching” and turns it into a command to “watch.” He says, “What are Christians to watch for,then? A day and a coming that follow thetribulation. And what kind of watchingare Christians to practice? A watchingthat takes account of events known by them to precede and signal the eventwatched for.” (Gundry, First the Antichrist, p. 23)
Dr.Gundry then proceeds to say that the first few verses of 2 Thessalonians is“saying that the Day of the Lord can’t come—which is the same as saying thatthe Lord himself can’t come—till after the rebellion and revelation of theAntichrist.” (Gundry, First the Antichrist, p. 29) Dr. Gundry is also saying that theThessalonians thought that they were left behind to go through the tribulation.(Gundry, Church and the Tribulation, pp. 118-19.)
Isthat what the passage is saying? No! First, if they thought thatthey were left behind to go through the tribulation, then, this only makessense if they were being taught and believed pretribulationism. Second, Paul is answering the question ofverse 2, which says, “to the effect that the day of the Lord has come.” Paul is not providing in the following versescriteria that must first be met before the day of the Lord (i.e., thetribulation) could start, as suggested by Dr. Gundry. Instead, Paul is citing reasons why they arenot in the day of the Lord, or the tribulation, in those following verses. Paul provides reasons for why they are not inthe day of the Lord by citing items and events that were to occur when the dayof the Lord arrives. These are notthings that have to take place in order for the Lord to come back.
Itis because of this kind of exegetical slight-of-hand that Dr. Gundry is able toinsist that the Antichrist must come before Christ Himself can return in theair to rapture His church. Dr. Gundrymay be looking for the Antichrist, but as for me and my house, we are waitingfor Christ Himself! Maranatha!
By Tommy Ice
[NOTE: For anyone interestedin more critiques of Robert Gundry’s posttribulationism from a pretribulationalperspective, I recommend John F. Walvoord, The Blessed Hope and TheTribulation (Zondervan, 1976), and Charles C. Ryrie, Come Quickly, LordJesus: What You Need to Know About TheRapture (Harvest House, 1996).]