thomas ice

not a knockout punch; more of a glancing blow

In what little spare time I have at the moment, I’ve been slowly working through 2 Thessalonians, especially the eschatological section of 2Thess 2.1-12. This portion of the letter has been a veritable hotbed of debate, although for various reasons. On one extreme, since the work of Schmidt (1801), furthered by Kern (1839) and Baur (1845), most critical scholars see it as evidence that Paul did not compose the letter.¹ On another extreme, since (at least) the work of Scofield (1909), furthered by a number of Dispensational writers since then, many evangelical scholars see this passage as evidence of Paul’s knowledge of what will take place at the eschaton.

Both of these perspectives have their merits (and faults) and both should be examined carefully and honestly by all who engage with this letter. Since Paul Foster recently addressed the issues in the first extreme (see “Who Wrote 2 Thessalonians? A Fresh Look at an Old Problem,” JSNT 35.2 [2012]: 150-75), and since I agree with most of what he argues, there is no need for me to enter into that discussion. Instead, my concern here is with the second extreme, specifically the kind of knowledge that Paul had about the eschaton and the reasons why he says what he does.

I make this my focus partly because David Dean (tenuously) argues for Paul’s knowledge of these events as being chronological in nature, and it was this chronological knowledge that he imparted to the Thessalonians during his brief sojourn.² That seems to handle the “kind” question. With regard to the “reason” question, Dean sees this imparting of chronological knowledge as necessary for a right understanding of the eschaton–particularly the timing of the (so-called) “rapture.” Specifically, for Dean, the “rapture” takes place before all of the other events described and Christians can rest assured that the other events have not taken place because the “rapture” has not yet happened.

Dean makes this argument on the basis of what he sees Paul saying in 2Thess 2.1-12. By way of summary: after stating the concern (cf. 2.1-2)–i.e. a faulty teaching concerning the return of Christ–Paul exhorts the Thessalonians to remain true to what they know (cf. 2.3a). He then launches into what appear to be “signs” that will precede Christ’s return (cf. 2.3b-12)–e.g. the apostasy, the revelation of the man of lawlessness, the removal of the evil that prevails, the defeat of the man of lawlessness at Christ’s return, and judgment.³ In fact, the logical and syntactical construction of the Greek reveals a necessary causal relationship between the “signs” and Christ’s return. Paul’s remarks, therefore, could be seen as endorsing a chronology.

However, I am not so sure that Paul’s knowledge is necessarily chronological–in the strict detailed sense that Dean proposes. Specifically, I do not see Paul saying: “Before the return of Christ happens: first, there will be ‘the apostasy’; second, there will be the ‘unveiling of the “man of lawlessness” ‘; third, this ‘man’ will oppose God and exalt himself over all gods; fourth, he will take ‘his seat in the temple of God’ and claim to be God; fifth, that which prevails will be revealed and then taken out of the way; sixth, the ‘lawless one’ will be defeated by Christ; etc.” Paul’s language in this text does not come across as being that precise.

Moreover, contrary to what Scofield argued (cf. notes on 2.3) and Dean rehashes, I don’t think Paul sees all of the “events” in 2Thess 2.3b-12 as reserved exclusively for the distant future. In particular, and contrary to how the NIV, TNIV, NLT, NCV, and CEV translate it, the details pertaining to the “man of lawlessness” are not waiting to be climatically revealed (cf. 2.4); Paul’s language stresses that nearly all of the details are already taking place. In other words: the “man of lawlessness” is presently opposing (ἀντικείμενος) God; he is presently exalting (ὑπεραιρόμενος) himself over all other gods; and he does this because he has already taken his seat (καθίσαι) in the temple of God and is presently displaying (ἀποδεικνύντα) himself as God. The only detail waiting fulfillment in the future is this “man” unveiling (ἀποκαλύπτω; cf. 2.3b), which Paul goes on to describe as contemporaneous with the appearance (ἐπιφάνεια) of Christ’s return/coming/presence (παρουσία; cf. 2.8). And since the bulk of what Paul says up to 2.5 is about the man of lawlessness, the reminder in 2.5 would seem to refer to that previous teaching and not Dean’s proposed chronological eschatology.

At the very least, this creates problems for the rather absurd theories of Dispensationalists like Tim LaHaye (again) and Thomas Ice (et al), who both drone on about the birth, upbringing, ethnicity, political affiliations, and identity of this “man of lawlessness”, whom they inappropriately call the “Antichrist”. Such suggestions reveal a lack of understanding of Paul’s overall meaning and his use of apocalyptic language. The contemporaneity of the “man’s” unveiling (and subsequent defeat) and Christ’s appearing also create problems for the usual (Classic) Dispensationalist eschatological “timeline”. In particular, the contemporaneity raises serious doubts about the so-called pretribulation rapture of the saints, which is based on the more troubling notion of a two-stage return of Christ. Moreover, a “rapture of the saints” or even its (supposed) timing is not even close to being Paul’s concern–either here in 2Thess 2.1-12 or the only passage in the whole of the NT that indicates something like a “rapture”: 1Thess 4.17.

As he states at the beginning of his argument, Paul’s concern (for both the Thessalonians and anyone else who might read his letter) is about faithful patience, allegiance to truth about what God has done and will do in and through Christ, and not being swept away by speculative theories about Christ’s return. You know, theories like those (explicitly or implicitly) proposed by: Joseph Smith, William Miller, Charles T. Russell (twice), later Jehovah’s Witnesses (multiple attempts), Hal Lindsey (twice), Edgar Whisenaunt (twice), John Hinkle, Harold Camping (repeatedly), etc.

¹ The letter is dislodged from Paul’s hands on account of its (apparently) different eschatology vis-a-vis that of 1 Thessalonians. Specifically, 2Thess seems to advocate a recognizable chronological sequence of events that precede Christ’s return (cf. 2Thess 2.3-12), whereas 1Thess appears to indicate that the return will be without warning (cf. 1Thess 4.13-5.11). Moreover, while 1Thess reads as though Paul sees himself as alive when Christ returns, 2Thess gives the impression that Paul is giving up on that hope. In other words: 1Thess anticipates an imminent return (i.e. in Paul’s lifetime) whereas 2Thess allows for considerable delays (i.e. well after Paul’s death). Thus, the “consensus” for how to explain these differences is that Paul wrote 1Thess and someone writing in his name penned 2Thess.
² See “Does 2 Thessalonians 2.1-3 Exclude the Pretribulation Rapture?” (Bibliotheca Sacra 168 [2011]: 196. I plan to deal with some of the finer points of Dean’s argument in a different post.
³ Props to those who recognize the variant I proposed. Don’t worry, I have reasons for doing so; I’m not just making stuff up for the Gehenna of it.

be careful in polemics . . .

because (apparently) it might cause forgetfulness, misrepresentation or an uncontrollable urge to speak untruths. One example comes from the always feisty Thomas Ice, an ardent mouthpiece for (Classical) Dispensationalism.

The topic of discussion is the (rather untenable) notion of a secret pre-tribulation rapture of the saints as the first stage of Christ’s second coming–i.e. what Classical Dispensationalists (mis)label the parousia.[1] Ice’s beef is not necessarily with the teaching itself but with the qualifying term “secret” being attached to it.[2] Expressing his angst with those who (wrongly–in his view) describe the pre-tribulation as “secret”, Ice says the following:

Sorry, but this is another mistake, another myth. In all my reading of pretribulationism and discussion with pretribulationists, I have never, that I can recall, heard a pre-trib rapturist use the nomenclature of “secret” to describe our view. I have only heard the phrase “secret” rapture as a pejorative term used exclusively by anti-pretribulationists. Why. Apparently they enjoy fighting a straw man.

T. Ice, “Rapture Myths” (accessed, 25-Dec-12);
cf. also the same article, yet posted here.[3]

Ice then pins the blame for this “myth” on Dave MacPherson, a staunch critic of both Ice and (Classical) Dispensationalism, and asserts that MacPherson misrepresented the truth in order to fuel his criticisms. However, it is in voicing his animosity against using “secret” and his railing against MacPherson that Ice slides into trouble in a number of ways.

First, it is simply not the case that MacPherson (or anyone else) created the description for (Classical) Dispensationalism’s understanding of the (supposed) first-stage in order to mock it. Dispensationalists long before and after MacPherson’s book (The Rapture Plot [1994]) regularly employed the term. For example:

  • Clarence Larkin, Dispensational Truth (1918), 13-14
  • Michael Baxter, Forty Prophetic Wonders (1918), 153
  • Hal Lindsey, Late Great Planet Earth (1970), 142-43
  • Robert Gundry, Church and the Tribulation (1974), 104
  • Warren Wiersbe, Be Ready (1984), 19, 144
  • Tim LaHaye, Prophecy Study Bible (2004), note on 1Thess 4.13
  • Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology (2005), 4:623
  • cf. also Charles Feinberg, Millennialism: Two Major Views (1985), 287

This raises the second problem: not one of the sources just listed uses the term “secret” in a negative way–contrary to what Ice boldly claims. In fact, not once in these works is “secret” used in any way other than an axiomatic description for the (so-called) pretribulation rapture. Thus, in this case, it would seem that it is Ice who has created the straw man argument, not the so-called anti-pretribulationists (e.g. MacPherson, Ken Gentry).

Third, Ice’s adamant assertion that in all his reading he has not encountered the term “secret” used for the pretribulation view of the rapture is untenable. (Admittedly, he supplies his own escape-hatch with the qualifier: “that I can recall”). With someone as entrenched in Dispensationalism as Ice is, one would think that he’s read the likes of Larkin, Lindsey, Feinberg; and with LaHaye being his colleague at the “Pre-Trib Research Center”, it would safe to assume that Ice has read LaHaye’s stuff.

Even if we can’t assume that, let’s go on what we can know. In his 1990 article, “Why the Doctrine of the Pretribulation Rapture Did Not Begin with Margaret MacDonald,” Ice quotes directly from John Walvoord’s book, The Blessed Hope and Tribulation (1979). I mention this because Ice’s quotation ends on the same page where Walvoord mentions the secret rapture (i.e. p. 43). And since Ice later quotes from p. 44 of Walvoord’s book, we can be reasonably sure he noticed the reference to a “secret” rapture–that is unless Ice is reading selectively.

This is not just a one-off. In the same 1990 article, Ice refers to two other works that make explicit mention of a “secret rapture” (Timothy Weber, Living in the Shadow of the Second Coming  [1984], 21; Harold Rowdon, The Origins of the Brethren 1825-1850 [1967], 231-32), and in both cases the tone is no where close to being pejorative. I have not had the opportunity to check other Ice articles to see if a similar phenomenon occurs. But on the basis of this 1990 article alone, I’m having a hard time believing Ice when he says he’s never heard or read pre-trib rapturists use the term “secret” to describe the event in question.

Now, Ice might play his “I don’t recall” card on these occasions, and if we’re in a decent mood we might let it slide. Maybe. But there is one final problem for Ice when he blasts “anti-pretribulationists” for misrepresenting his view, and it is a problem that his trusty trump card cannot settle. In 2001, a book misleadingly called, Charting the End Times: A Visual Guide to Bible Prophecy & Its Fulfillment,[4] asserts the following (p.112):

When examining Scripture, the honest seeker after truth must face the fact that there are 15 differences between the two phases of Christ’s coming that cannot reconciled. This alone makes it impossible for them to be the same event. One is a secret coming, the other is public for all to see. One will cause participants to rejoice, and the other will cause people to mourn. [emphasis added]

Notice that the statement is not pejorative, misrepresenting or even anti-pretribulationist. It specifically refers to a “secret coming” [i.e. rapture] of Christ as nearly axiomatic of “biblical” prophecy, and something that is a positive find for “the honest seeker after truth.” The authors of this book? Tim LaHaye and Thomas Ice.

It would seem that in his haste to ridicule those who disagree with him, Ice has wrongly accused his opponents of crimes they did not commit; he has not accurately represented what other Dispensationalists are saying; and he has apparently forgotten his own contribution to the problem he seeks to eradicate. But it is often the case that when anger sets in, the mouth opens and the eyes shut.

[1] For now I will side-step the discussion on how Classical Dispensationalists argue for a two-stage return of Christ and how the term “parousia” (supposedly) refers to the first stage.
[2] In some ways, Ice’s argument resembles John Walvoord’s attempt to avoid the term “secret” and yet accept the idea (cf. Church in Prophecy [1964], 83, 136-37).
[3] I have taken screenshots of both sites, just in case Ice wants to erase alter retract his original statement.
[4] The sub-title should read, “A Visual Guide to Dispensational Prophecy & Its Fulfillment”.