FAQ :: Is Robert Gundry teaching the false Post-Tribulation doctrine?

Dr. Robert H. Gundry was a professor for many years at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. Having grown up in a dispensational, pretribulational environment, he set his hand to developing a new type of posttribulationism, called dispensational posttribulationism. Dr. Gundry has the dubious distinction of being one of the few ever booted out of the Evangelical Theological Society because of his use of a liberal approach to the New Testament called source criticism.But it was his groundbreaking book, The Church and the Tribulation (Zondervan, 1973), which saw his innovative, although errant view of posttribulationism come upon the American evangelical scene. Dr. Gundry is most likely the leading academic posttribulationist, even though he disagrees with much of the argumentation of those who have gone before him.

Some years later, Dr. Gundry revisited the issue of posttribulationism when he wrote a book called First The Antichrist: Why Christ Won’t Come Before the Antichrist Does (Baker, 1997). The title of his new book reinforces the point often made by pretribulationists that posttribulationists cannot follow the 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 tells them to look for Antichrist, who must come before Christ.

Dr. Gundry told me in a personal letter that he was motivated to revisit the subject once again by an article on the Pseudo-Ephraem Pre-Trib Rapture statement written up in Dallas Theological Seminary’s theological journal called Bibliotheca Sacra (July/September1995) by Timothy Demy. This is reflected in his book where he has a postscript in which he attempts to deal with the fourth century Pre-Trib Rapture statement of Pseudo-Ephraem.

Four Kinds of Posttribulationism

Before we examine specifically Dr. Gundry’s new formulation of posttribulationism, it should be noted, as the late Dr. John F. Walvoord has brought to our attention, that, to post a whole new approach to posttribulationism is to admit that the others have failed and fallen short of what Scripture is teaching.

Another of Dr. Walvoord’s insights includes the observation that there is a single kind of approach to developing and defending pretribulationism. What does he mean?

When it comes to Pre-Trib rationale, there are not multiple systems that have reached the same conclusion pretribulationism. In other words, all pretribulationists use the same hermeneutic, generally the same exegesis and theologically the same thought process in arriving at pretribulationism. Dr. Walvoord believed that this detail hints at the fact that pretribulationism is likely what the Bible teaches.

On the other hand, posttribulationism has four distinct ways in which they arguefor their belief. Dr. Walvoord use to say that if any single one of these four approaches were true, then it would mean that the other three systems were wrong and would contradict the form of posttribulationism that was posited as true. In other words, there could be incorrect views of posttribulationism, even if the view was posted 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 the last century a number of varieties of posttribulationism have emerged, some of them quite recent in their major tenets, declares Dr. Walvoord. In general, they cover the gamut of thepossibilities. (Walvoord, Blessed Hope, p. 17) Note the following breakout by Dr. Walvoord:

SEMI-CLASSIC OSTTRIBULATIONISM, Alexander Reese, in his book, The Approaching Advent of Christ, Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1937) presents the most comprehensive defense of posttribulationism. (Walvoord, Blessed Hope, p. 17) He offers his opinion that the resurrection of the church occurs at the same time as the resurrection of Revelation 20. Major emphasis is placed on terms like appearing, the day, the end, and revelation as technical terms that relate the Rapture to the Second Coming as the terminus of the present age. Reese’s arguments have not been surpassed by other posttribulationists, but later writers offer other approaches. (John F. Walvoord, “Posttribulationism Today, Part I: The Rise of Posttribulational Interpretation,” Bibliotheca Sacra (January-March 1975; Vol. 132, No. 525, p. 22)

All the 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)

FUTURISTIC POSTTRIBULATIONISM, George Ladd — Whose work, The Blessed Hope, (George E. Ladd, The Blessed Hope, (Eerdmans, 1956), promotes the view that the Great Tribulation is still future. Ladd considers it inevitable that at least a seven-year period (described in Dan. 9:27) separates the church today from the Rapture and the Second Advent of Christ which he aspects of the same event.

Although Ladd’s argument builds largely on the fact of the history of the doctrine and extols posttribulationism as the norm for orthodoxy through the centuries, he introduces a new realism into the picture in adopting a literal future Tribulation. His views have somewhat been qualified by his later writings, but in general he seems to retain afuturistic view of the Great Tribulation with its corresponding doctrine that Christ’s return could not be any day, but that it can only follow the years required to fulfill prophecies relating to the Tribulation. (Walvoord, Blessed Hope, pp.18-19)

DISPENSATIONA POSTTRIBULATIONISM, Robert Gundry, in his work, The Church and the Tribulation, Gundry, following the lead of many premillenarians, distinguishes Israel and the church as separate entities and attempts a literal interpretation of many of the prophecies that deal with the end times. In advancing his theory he refutes most of the posttribulationists who have preceded him. Working with these premises, he endeavors to establish a new doctrine of posttribulationism which he tries to harmonize with a literal interpretation of prophecy. (Walvoord, Blessed Hope, p.19)

Gundry’s work poses a number of theological problems both for other posttribulationists and for contemporary pretribulationists. Because his arguments, in the main, are new and establish a new form of posttribulationism never advanced before, his work is a milestone in the variety of interpretations which have characterized posttribulationism through the centuries and creates further need for study of posttribulationism in the history of the church. (Walvoord, Posttribulationism Today, p. 24)

Gundy’s New Posttribulationism

Gundry’s new form of posttribulationism is basically an attempt to apply consistently literal interpretation, from a posttribulational perspective. Since he is a really smart guy, I think his attempt 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 logical gymnastics must be employed in his attempt to pull off such an approach. So what are the features of his brand of posttribulationism?

Most posttribulationists blend the Rapture and the Second Coming into a single event. However, Gundry, like pretribulationists, separates the two events, but only by a matter of hours at the end of the Tribulation. When it comes to the Tribulation, Dr. Gundry was a pioneer in chopping the seventieth week of Daniel into different sub-sections. (This approach paved the way for people like Robert Van Kampen and his development of the three-quarters Rapture theory.) He places the Day of the Lord at the end of the seven-year period, instead of seeing it as encompassing the entire time.

In an attempt to be unique among posttribulationists, Dr. Gundry, on the one hand argues for a distinction between Israel and the church, but on the other hand, is often found to blend the two into a single redeemed people. It is logically impossible to say that Israel and the church are distinct, but then speak of separate redeemed peoples during the Tribulation, as does Dr. Gundry.

One of the classic problems for any posttribulationist is where do mortals come from that will populate the Millennium? Virtually all posttribulationists don’t even try to answer this sticky problem. However, Dr. Gundry is one of the few to attempt an answer. The problem is that if all living believers are translated at the Second Advent, which is what posttribulationists are saying, then from whence come those whom Scripture clearly teaches will enter into the kingdom and repopulate the earth? He says, that the Jewish population will come from the 144,000, who will not be saved during the Tribulation. Gentiles will come from some unbelievers who somehow escape death or judgment, according to Dr. Gundry. This is an amazing position and certainly goes against the clear teaching of Scripture.

Another of Dr. Gundry’s posttribulational teachings is that the Rapture will be an event in which the church will go out to meet the Lord in the air, at the Rapture, in order to immediately return with Him to planet Earth at the Second Coming. I will show this to be an errant teaching.

Problems with Dr. Gundry’s Posttribulationism

Many of Dr. Gundry’s innovative arguments are built upon erroneous fine points of definition and exegesis, combined with subtle presuppositions that must be realized in order to see the error of his argument. When one sifts through his arguments for posttribulationism 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 really assertions, by overwhelming the reader with details that too often do not provide the necessary proof of his argument.

For example, the belief that Paul’s use of the word: meet, in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 is a technical term was taken by posttribulationists like Gundry as a knock-outpunch against the pretribulational understanding of Scripture. Dr. Gundry alleges: “This connotation points toward our rising to meet Christ in order to escort Him immediately back to earth (Gundy, Church and The Tribulation, p. 104).

What is he saying? Gundry is saying that the Greek word for “meet” in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 is a technical term, used of an arriving dignitary or special guest, approaching the city of his destination. Residents would then go out to meet Him and accompany Him back to His destination. It is alleged that to do justice to the Greek word, Christ’s destination would be earth, not back to heaven; we would meet Him in the clouds and accompany him back to earth, says this view.

False Assumptions

Latent within the above belief are false assumptions that must be corrected before anyone, Pre-Trib or anti-Pre-Trib, can respond to such a question. Those, like Dr. Gundry, holding this view make a big-time error is their belief that the Greek word for “meet” is a technical term. (A technical term, as used here, refers to a word that would have specific connotations implicit in the word itself.) Here we have an example of a widely held belief in academic circles that is categorically wrong. So what is the error and how did it get started?

Origin of the Error

Taking the last question first, we can trace the source of the error to a German scholar named Erik Peterson. Peterson wrote an article in 1930 (Erik Peterson, Die Einholung des Kyrios, ZST1 (1930), pp. 682-702) saying that the Greek word to meet (apantsis )is to be understood as a technical term for a civic custom of antiquity whereby a public welcome was accorded by a city to important visitors. Interestingly, it was in 1930 that English-speaking scholars Moulton and Milligan published their famous work on extra-biblical use of Greek vocabulary around the time of the New Testament. Moulton and Milligan say about to meet (apantsis): The word seems to have been a kind of technical term for the official welcome of a newly arrived dignitary. (James Hope Moulton and George Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament Illustrated from the Papyri and Other Non-Literary Sources, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1930, p. 53).

A few years ago, I was at a national conference when premillennial, posttribulationist, Rodney Stortz, attempted to dismiss the possibility of a Pre-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 returning military 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, Twin Oaks Presbyterian Church of Ballwin, Missouri, 1999).

A Few Quick Points

I will 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 (apantsis) includes the notion of returning with the dignitary to the place from which the greeting party came from.

The idea of returning from whence one came appears to be a notion added by overly zealous posttribulationists in an effort to disprove pretribulationism. In fact, Milligan did not believe that the word “meet” implies that the dignitary return back with the greeters as noted in his commentary on 1 Thessalonians:

“The thought is that the raptured saints will be carried up into the air, as the interspace between heaven and earth, where they will meet the descending Lord, and then either escort Him down to the earth in accordance with O.T. prophecy, or more probably in keeping with the general context accompany Him back to heaven.” (George Milligan, 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 apantsis or in this context which demands this interpretation; it cannot be determined from what is said here whether the Lord (with his people) continues his journey to earth or returns to heaven. (F. F. Bruce, 1 & 2 Thessalonians (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 not follow that their return to earth would have to be immediate. Why could not, based upon a supposed meaning of 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, panel three; also see Rodney Stortz, cassette tape recording The Rapture, Tape 2from the series The Second Coming of Christ, Twin Oaks Presbyterian Church of Ballwin, Missouri, 1999). since only two of the four instances may mean that. It cannot be established from an overall biblical use of Old and New Testaments. (For a total refutation of the possibility that “meet” can be established as a technical term from the Old Testament see G. H. Lang, The Revelation of Jesus Christ, Miami Springs, FL: Conley & Schoettle, 1985[1945]), pp. 262-65).

NOTE: For anyone interested in more critiques of Robert Gundrys posttribulationism from a pretribulational perspective, please read John F. Walvoord, The Blessed Hope and The Tribulation (Zondervan, 1976), and Charles C. Ryrie, Come Quickly, Lord Jesus: What You Need to Know About The Rapture (Harvest House, 1996).]