A Critical Inquiry into the Notion of a Two-Stage Return of Christ

Dispensational Chart of Two-Stage Return of Christ

The historic Christian faith has believed in only two advents or arrivals of Christ. The first advent was the incarnation when he was born to Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem. The second will be when he returns to earth in great glory and power. While interpretations vary concerning the meaning and nature of the millennium, the second advent of Christ has historically been affirmed as one single event. Many evangelical Christians today believe in a pre-tribulation rapture whereby all believers will be caught up to meet Christ in the air, leaving only their clothes behind, then to return to heaven for seven years until Christ returns physically to the earth at the end of the tribulation. The catching away or “rapture” of the church is typically seen as a secret return of Christ for his church. As such, adherents of this view believe that Christ’s second coming consists of two separate stages or phases. This view is made popular in the wider culture through the Left Behind series of books and movies.

Interestingly, what is commonplace in much evangelical eschatology regarding the two-phase return of Christ was completely non-existent until the 1830s when some Protestant sects in Scotland, England and Ireland began to teach that Christ would return in two stages at the end of the age. They started to teach that Jesus would first return in the air for his faithful Christians and then later return physically to earth. The exact origins of this teaching are debated, but it can be traced to the Albury Park Conference (Surrey, Southern Enlgand)/Catholic Apostolic Church and their publication The Morning Watch. The Albury conference was spearheaded by Henry Drummond (1786-1860) and included Edward Irving (1792-1834), Lewis Way, Hatley Frere, Hugh McNeile, Joseph Wolff, and William Cuninghame.[1] The most important and influential figure in this circle is Edward Irving who was not only a major contributor to premillennialism, but he was also a precursor to the modern charismatic movement.[2] Their guiding hermeneutic was one of literal interpretation of prophecy especially regarding the OT prophecies to Israel. In the Morning Watch (March 1830), published by the Albury conference from 1829-1833 and edited by John Tudor, Irving argued that based on 1 Cor. 15:51-52 and 1 Thess. 4:15-17 true Christians “have a promise of escape out of the awful judgment with which the Gentile church is to be consumed.”[3] Then, in September 1830, another article (most likely T. W. Chevalier) suggested the return of Christ will occur in two stages–the “epiphany” and the “parousia.”[4] The members of the Albury conference are the first ones to describe the return of Christ, not as one single event, but rather three distinct stages:

There are three things particularly to be noticed in our Lords advent: First Our gathering together unto him.. . Secondly, His epiphany or coming in the clouds, and all his saints with power and great glory. . . Thirdly, His parousia, or visible presence… . The visible signs in the heavens will not precede our gathering together unto the Lord, but will be subsequent to it.[5]

 While these views were clearly taught by Irving and those associated with Albury in the early 1830s, it was John Nelson Darby who developed, systematized, and popularized these views into Dispensationalism. There is much debate concerning who may have influenced Darby’s eschatology (e.g., John Walvoord and Charles Ryrie say Irving et. al. had no direct influence on Darby’s views), but I believe that Darby drew upon many of the hermeneutics and ideas first articulated by Irving, the Albury conference, and the Morning Watch. What Darby, however, contributed was the strong distinction and separation between Israel and the Church. In other words, the church was a parenthesis between God’s dealings with national Israel. Therefore, the church will be removed from the earth in order for national Israel to take center stage in God’s prophetic plans.

Whether you attribute the origins of the two-stage return of Christ and the pre-tribulation rapture to Irving and company or to J. N. Darby, the point is that it was a concept completely new to Christianity. I believe that it derived from a particular hermeneutic for reading prophecy that requires a sharp separation between Israel and the Church based on a supposed “literal” interpretation of prophecy.

The tendency to separate Israel from Church based on the use of different terms and concepts also influences the dispensational view of a two-stage return of Christ.  John Feinberg argued that the pre-tribulationist merely needs to demonstrate that the dissimilarities between the rapture passages and the return passages are significant enough to indicate the possibility that they are separate events.[6] By contrasting the passages that describe the return of Christ for his church and the return of Christ to earth in judgment, the idea of two distinct phases is substantiated. As such dispensationalists have succeeded in contributing a fair amount of research to distinguish at least twenty-two references to rapture passages and at least twenty second coming passages.[7] Ed Hindson makes the case for dividing the return of Christ into two distinct events separated by at least seven years. He writes, “The Bible predicts the literal personal return of Jesus Christ to rapture His church, to judge the world and to establish His Kingdom on earth. At times this is described as one grand event. At other times it is clearly divided into separate phases.”[8] He distinguishes between the two stages of Christ return with a helpful list of ten contrasts:

1) At the rapture Christ comes for His own (Jn 14:3; 1 Thess 4:17; 2 Thess 2:1), but at the return Christ comes with His own (1 Thess 3:13; Jude 14; Rev 19:14).

2) He comes in the air (1 Thess 4:17), contrasted with he comes to the earth (Zech 14:4; Acts 1:11).

3) He claims his bride, versus he comes with his bride (Rev 19:6–14).

4) Removal of believers (1 Thess 4:13–18), manifestation of Christ (Mal 4:2). 5) Only his own see Him (1 Thess 4:13–18), every eye shall see him (Rev 1:7). 6) Tribulation begins (2 Thess 1:6–9), Millennial kingdom begins (Rev 20:1–7). Saved are delivered from wrath (1 Thess 1:5–100, unsaved experience the wrath of God (Rev 6:12–17).

8) No signs precede rapture (1 Thess 5:1–3), signs precede second coming (Lk 21:11; 15).

9) Focus: Lord and church (1 Thess 4:13–18), focus: Israel and kingdom (Matthew 24:14).

10) World is deceived (2 Thess 2:3–12), Satan is bound (Rev 20:1–2).[9]

The reason why the return of Christ is divided into two phases or stages is because many of the references to the return of Christ are positive and hopeful for the believers, but many of the references are negative and wrathful for the unbelievers. What is more, Hindson argues the “Rapture will take place in the air. Unlike the glorious appearing when Christ descends to earth, splits the Mount of Olives, overthrows Antichrist and binds Satan, the Rapture will occur when we are “caught up together… to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thess. 4:17). More importantly he contends that the “Tribulation judgments are the “wrath of the Lamb.” Revelation 6:16 depicts the cataclysmic judgments of the end times as the wrath of Christ. Whereas, Revelation 19:7- 9 depicts the Church as the bride of the Lamb. She is not the object of His wrath which is poured out on an unbelieving world.”

To conclude that there must be two separate phases for the return of Christ may at first appear convincing to some, but a closer inspection reveals a couple of weaknesses.

First, although valid distinctions exist throughout Scripture, dispensationalists may be committing the logical fallacy of false disjunctions. D. A. Carson observed, “a false either/or requirement when complementarity might be acceptable—are extraordinarily common and potentially very destructive of fair-minded, evenhanded exegesis.”[10] William Shepherd observed that dispensationalists seem to follow the technique termed “dissimilation” that describes a method (invented by Augustine) to solve the problem of texts not harmonizing by designating them as different events.[11] If the distinction that these verses depict is simply the same event from two different perspectives, it weakens the dispensational conclusion. Logically, the return of Christ will have a totally different significance for those who are described as his bride than for those who are described as his enemies. The point is that all those references may simply present two sides of the same coin, rather than two entirely separate events. To say that because these verses have a different focus that they must be completely dissimilar with no possibility of similarity existing strongly suggests a false disjunction. There is no explicit reason for ascribing these passages to two separate events. The only reason to do so would be based on theological presuppositions of a two stage return of Christ.

 A second observation concerning the dissimilarity between these references is that many are the product of theological concepts assumed within a dispensational construct. For example, under the sixth point offered by Hindson, he argued the contrast between the rapture and the return is evident because with the rapture the tribulation begins (2 Thess 1:6–9), but at the return the Millennial kingdom begins (Rev. 20:1–7). However, 2 Thess 1:6–7 states: “God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels (NIV).” While the rapture might be implied in this text, the visible return of Christ is also explicitly depicted without temporal or conceptual distinction. A literal reading of the text does not indicate the beginning of the tribulation. Instead, it links the relief that the troubled receive to the visible return of Christ in blazing fire to judge those who caused the trouble. The dispensationalist reads the rapture and beginning of the tribulation into their interpretation because their theology requires a distinction between the rapture, tribulation and second coming. In other words, the contrasts offered may not be legitimately based on textual evidence, but rather somewhat ad hoc theological arguments.




[1] Mark R. Patterson, Designing the Last Days: Edward Irving, The Albury Circle, and the Theology of the Morning Watch (Ph.D. diss., Kings College London, 2011); Mark Patterson and Andrew Walker, “‘Our Unspeakable Comfort’: Irving, Albury, and the Origins of the Pre-Tribulation Rapture,” in Christian Millenarianism: From the Early Church to Waco (ed. Stephen Hunt; Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2001), 98-115; David Malcolm Bennett, The Origins of Left Behind Eschatology (Maitland, FL: Xulon Press, 2010), 217-218.

[2] Andrew Dallimore, The Life of Edward Irving: The Forerunner of the Charismatic Movement (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Press, 1983).

[3] Edward Irving, “Signs of the Times and the Characteristics of the Church,” pt. 2, TMW (March 1830), 160.

[4] T.W.C., “On the Epiphany of our Lord Jesus,” TMW (Sept. 1830), 587-93).

[5] John Hooper, “The Church’s Expectation,” TMW (Dec. 1831), 323. See Patterson, Designing the Last Days, 164.

[6] Feinberg, “Arguing for the Rapture: Who Must Prove What and How?,” 194.

[7] Thomas Ice, “The Rapture and the Second Coming: An Important Distinction,” [online] The Thomas Ice Collection, 2002, cited 28 November 2002, available from <http://www.raptureme.com/featured/tt10.html>.

[8] Edward E. Hindson, “The Rapture and the Glorious Appearing” (unpublished paper, accessed: http://www.pre-trib.org/articles/view/rapture-and-glorious-appearing-of-jesus-christ, 5/23/2013).

[9] Edward E. Hindson, “The Rapture and the Return: Two Aspects of Christ’s Coming,” in When the Trumpet Sounds: Today’s Foremost Authorities Speak Out on End-Time Controversies, ed. Thomas D. Ice and Timothy Demy (Eugene: Harvest House, 1995), 157-159.

[10] Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, 90.

[11] William H. Shepherd, “Revelation and the Hermeneutics of Dispensationalism,” Anglican Theological Review 71 (Summer 1989): 294–295.

7 thoughts on “A Critical Inquiry into the Notion of a Two-Stage Return of Christ

  1. Alan, thanks for sharing this. There are times when you feel your views might be wrong when nobody seems to share them. I feel vindicated. – Gary

  2. Thanks for this marvelous presentation of yours. The most accurate and detailed work I have found on the history of pretribulational dispensationalism in full-length form is “The Rapture Plot” by American journalist/historian Dave MacPherson. Numerous evangelical luminaries have endorsed his findings (Google “Scholars Weigh My Research”) and his research sources, including rare 19th century works, make up the “Dave MacPherson Papers” which are part of valuable collections at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. His collection is the only one in North America, to my knowledge, which contains copies of every page in every issue of Edward Irving’s journal “The Morning Watch,” published, as you know, from 1829-1833. Though debatable in certain dispensational quarters, MacPherson’s evidence that a Miss Margaret Macdonald was the first to suggest a pretribulational rapture in the spring of 1830 while living in western Scotland has drawn approval from many leading evangelicals including Dr. F. F. Bruce and Dr. F. Nigel Lee (the latter having racked up the amazing total of nine earned doctorates!). I am glad to learn of the work of yours in this area of historical interest and wish you the Lord’s best.

    • Thanks Nigel,

      I am familiar with MacPherson’s work. What I did not know what that Southeastern has his collection of papers. I did my Ph.D. work there. I would love to be able to read through the issues of the Morning Watch. The influence of Margaret Macdonald is often hotly debated. I think it is most likely that she influenced Irving, but not Darby. I think Darby was familiar with her prophecy, but I don’t think that it was something that influenced him directly.

      • Yes, Alan, I agree. (Not for the first time!) I think it highly likely that Margaret Macdonald influenced Irving, but not Darby, at least not directly. Then, probably, Irving influenced Darby. Irving accepted speaking in tongues and numerous “prophecies” made by his people and others. Darby did not accept them..
        I have a page on the relationship between Darby and Irving on my Edward Irving website: http://www.edwardirving.org

    • It is a Clarence Larkin dispensational chart. I found it on google images. Disclaimer: I do not affirm the views endorsed by this chart.

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