My favorite essay in this book so far is Michael J. Vanlaningham’s “Paul and the Rapture: 1 Corinthians 15.” One reason is that this essay brings the Hebrew Bible into the equation. As a classic dispensationalist (I assume), Vanlaningham interprets the Old Testament prophecies about Israel’s future restoration literally. That has implications on his attempts to address whether Paul in I Corinthians 15 believes in a pretribulational rapture, and also on his attempts to define how Paul is interacting with the Old Testament.
In this post, I will discuss how Vanlaningham addresses two issues regarding I Corinthians 15: the last trump of I Corinthians 15:52, and death being swallowed up in victory in I Corinthians 15:54, which is a reference to Isaiah 25:8. Both issues are relevant to the question of when the rapture—-the resurrection of the saints and the ascension of risen and living saints to heaven—-will occur. Will it occur prior to the Great Tribulation, which precedes Christ’s return to earth to rule? Or will it occur after the Great Tribulation?
In this post, I will not critique Vanlaningham’s arguments, as much as I will be digesting and explaining them. I will, however, include some asides that are not exactly related to I Corinthians 15, but Vanlaningham’s arguments remind me of them.
A. Let’s start with the last trump. The last trump is mentioned in I Corinthians 15:51-52:
51 Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,
52 In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. (KJV)
The resurrection of the saints occurs at the last trump. A number of Christian interpreters interpret the last trump in I Corinthians 15:52 in light of Revelation 11:15. In Revelation 11:15, the seventh trumpet marks the kingdoms of the world becoming the kingdoms of God and of Christ. The seventh trumpet is the last of seven trumpets. It is sounded near the end of the Great Tribulation, soon before the second coming of Christ. If the last trump of I Corinthians 15:51-52 is the same as the seventh trumpet of Revelation 11:15, then the rapture is not pretribulational.
Vanlaningham, of course, believes in a pretribulational rapture, and he does not interpret the last trump of I Corinthians 15:51-52 to be the seventh trumpet of Revelation 11:15. He offers explanations for what the last trump could be: it marks the church experiencing an eternal theophany, better than what Israel experienced in the Hebrew Bible (which was marked with trumpets; Exodus 19:16); or it signals that the church’s war is over and it can go to heaven and rest. I am unclear as to why Vanlaningham believes that Paul calls the trump the “last trump.” Does not “last” imply the last of the sequence? Would the “last trump” truly be the last trump if the rapture is pretribulational and seven more trumpets would be coming up during the Great Tribulation? Could “last” (Greek eschate) simply mean that the trump is in the future, or is an eschatological trumpet, not necessarily the very last trump in a sequence (see, for example, LXX Genesis 49:1; Numbers 31:2; Deuteronomy 31:27)? Could it be “last” in that it is the last trump before the Great Tribulation, the last trump before God steps in to judge the earth?
What is interesting is that Vanlaningham seems to suggest that there will be a trumpet after the seventh trumpet of Revelation 11:15. Not even the seventh trumpet is the very last trumpet, technically-speaking. Vanlaningham states on page 134:
In Isaiah 27:12-13, the great trumpet is sounded in connection with God’s gathering up of Jewish people individually, probably in connection with the gathering of Israel in preparation for entrance into the restored kingdom, an event that is always posttribulational…[T]he trumpet sounded in Matthew 24 is not to signal a posttribulational rapture. Instead, the trumpet of Matthew 24 is for the regathering of the Jewish people in natural bodies to their homeland after the second coming, not during it as required by posttribulationism.
One can perhaps dispute Vanlaningham’s interpretation of Matthew 24:31 as applying to the restoration of Israel. Still, if one wants to put different parts of Scripture together and interpret them literally, Isaiah 27:12-13 may very well refer to another trumpet after the seventh trumpet of Revelation 11:15. In such an interpretational scheme, Revelation 11:15 occurs in the context of the second coming of Christ, whereas the trumpet of Isaiah 27:12-13 could be blown after Christ has returned and marks the restoration of Israel.
Interestingly, Revelation 11:15 and its context do not explicitly present the saints being raised at the seventh trumpet. Revelation 11:18 says that the time has come for the judging of the dead, but, in the Book of Revelation, God judges the dead after Christ’s millennial reign, long after the events of Revelation 11 (Revelation 20). There is no explicit statement about when the dead martyrs will be resurrected (the first resurrection of Revelation 20).
As an aside, the issues surrounding the last trump remind me of the number of resurrections. My impression is that, in a pretribulational eschatological scenario, there are at least three resurrections. The first is the rapture of the saints, which occurs prior to the Great Tribulation. The second is the resurrection of the righteous who were martyred during the Great Tribulation, which Revelation 20 calls the first resurrection. The third is the resurrection of everyone else, who will stand before God and be judged according to his or her works (also, Revelation 20).
If the pretribulational rapture is true, is the “first resurrection” technically the “first resurrection,” since another resurrection came before it? The Armstrongite eschatology of my upbringing essentially said that the first resurrection of Revelation 20 is the resurrection of all of the righteous; it did not believe in a pretribulational rapture, but rather that all of the righteous would be resurrected in the first resurrection.
Pretribulationists may base their interpretation of the first resurrection (that it is of martyrs during the Great Tribulation) on Revelation 20:4: “Then I saw thrones, and those seated on them were given authority to judge. I also saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony to Jesus and for the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years” (KJV). The focus does seem to be on those martyred during the Great Tribulation. At the same time, it may not be excluding other righteous people, for it also mentions those who were given authority to judge, which could mean saints in general.
B. Our next topic will be I Corinthians 15:54, which is a reference to Isaiah 25:8. I Corinthians 15:54 states: “So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory” (KJV). Isaiah 25:8 states: “he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken” (NRSV).
Robert Gundry defends a post-tribulational rapture by interpreting I Corinthians 15:54 in light of the context of Isaiah 25:8. Vanlaningham quotes Gundry:
A perusal of Isaiah 23-26 reveals that the resurrection spoken of in 25:8 and 26:19 will occur after the tribulational anguish of Israel and the nations (24:1-13, 16b-22; 26:18-19, 20, 21) and the establishment of the Messianic kingdom and conversion of Israel (24:14-16a, 22-25:12). Paul quotes Isaiah 25:8 as fulfilled at the resurrection and translation of the Church (1 Cor. 15:54). If the defeat of death for the Church will fulfill the posttribulational defeat of death prophesied by Isaiah, the translation and rapture will likewise be posttribulational.
Robert Gundry, The Church and the Tribulation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999) 146.
For Gundry, Isaiah 25:8 is discussing what will occur after the tribulation of Israel and the nations, not before. According to Gundry, that means that, when Paul quotes it in I Corinthians 15:54, Paul is implying that the rapture/resurrection of the saints will occur after the Great Tribulation, not before it.
Vanlaningham disagrees with Gundry’s conclusion, as one who believes that the rapture/resurrection of the saints in I Corinthians 15 is pretribulational. For one, Vanlaningham states that Gundry is putting the defeat of death in Isaiah 25:8 at Christ’s second coming, when Revelation 20-21 places the end of death beyond even that: after the end of Christ’s millennial reign on earth, which is long after Christ’s second coming.
Vanlaningham believes that elements of I Corinthians 15 are actually consistent with death being finally and completely swallowed up after the millennium. I Corinthians 15:25-26 states that Christ must reign until all enemies are placed under his feet, and the last enemy to be defeated will be death. For Vanlaningham, that concerns Christ’s millennial reign on earth; at the end of that, death will be defeated.
That leads us to Vanlaningham’s second point. For Vanlaningham, Paul in I Corinthians 15:54 is applying Isaiah 25:8 to the pre-tribulational rapture of the church. But does that work, if Vanlaningham is correct that Isaiah 25:8 is about what will happen after the millennium, which is long after the time of the Great Tribulation? Vanlaningham’s response is that Paul is not “invoking every aspect of the Old Testament context” in quoting Isaiah 25:8 (page 137). For Vanlaningham, Paul in quoting Isaiah 25:8 is not saying that death is swallowed up forever, which is what Isaiah 25:8 says, but that death is swallowed up in victory. The latter is consistent with the rapture being pre-tribulational, for death being swallowed up in victory does not necessarily mean that death has been completely abolished; the latter, for Vanlaningham, will occur much later, after the millennium. For Vanlaningham, Paul in I Corinthians 15:54 is applying Isaiah 25:8 “quite narrowly to the church,” but Isaiah 25:8 would have a fuller fulfillment after the millennium; perhaps Vanlaningham’s point is that the pre-tribulational rapture is part, but not the whole, of God’s defeat of death. Vanlaningham states that such an approach is characteristic of New Testament interpretation of the Old Testament: New Testament authors can connect a theme or principal in the Old Testament to their situation, but this does not suggest that “everything in the OT context of the citation is invoked by the NT writer” (page 142).
I do not entirely agree with Vanlaningham that Paul “purposefully shifted ‘for all time’ in Isaiah 25 to ‘victory’ in 1 Corinthians to avoid the idea that death is undone at the time of the rapture.” The word translated as ‘for all time’ is la-netzach, and netzach can mean “victory” (II Samuel 2:26; I Chronicles 29:11). There is nothing about victory in the LXX of Isaiah 25:8, however, so the question would be where Paul is getting his understanding of the text: is it his own translation of the Hebrew of Isaiah 25:8 (assuming Paul knew Hebrew, which some scholars have disputed), or is he drawing from another Greek translation? This may not make a difference to Vanlaningham’s argument, for Paul still understands Isaiah 25:8 to concern victory rather than the final end of death. One can ask, though, whether a partial defeat of death is truly a victory. Perhaps it is, for the resurrected saints!
As an aside, Vanlaningham’s discussion of I Corinthians 15:54 reminds me of struggles I used to have over Gog and Magog. In Ezekiel 38-39, Gog tries to attack Israel, but God destroys Gog. In Revelation 20:8, Gog and Magog attack the New Jerusalem, after the millennium. Does Gog attack twice? A dispensationalist could argue that Ezekiel 38-39 applies to the time right before the millennium, or at the beginning of the millennium: Israel is restored to her land, Gog attacks, God destroys Gog, and that allows God to set up a millennial reign, with a new Temple. Those familiar with Hal Lindsey and the Left Behind series probably realize, of course, that they say Ezekiel 38 will occur before Christ’s second coming, and they interpret it as Russia attacking Israel. In any case, will Gog attack Israel and be destroyed, only to try to attack the new Jerusalem a thousand years later? (I think of Ellen White’s view in The Great Controversy that the wicked will be resurrected at the end of the millennium and will try to attack the new Jerusalem.) Or is Revelation 20-21 necessarily assuming or absorbing all of the context of Ezekiel 38-39? Maybe Revelation 20-21 is drawing from some themes, while ignoring others.