On this episode of Mind and Heart, guest, Dr. Guy P. Waters joins host Phillip Holmes. Dr. Waters is the James M. Baird, Jr. Professor of New Testament at RTS Jackson, and Academic Dean for the Dallas and Houston campuses. In 2003, he became a teaching elder in the Mississippi Valley Presbytery (PCA), where he served as Chair of the Credentials Committee for more than 10 years. Dr. Waters joined the faculty of RTS in 2007.
The episode begins with Holmes asking Dr. Waters how he came to faith. Dr. Waters was raised in the Lutheran church, but says he did not know the Lord until he met believers his age in college. As an introduction to this week’s topic, Holmes asks Dr. Waters if he has ever seen the Left Behind movies. Dr. Waters shares that he watched the films many years ago, and says at the time, though he disagreed with some of the theology, the powerful medium helped him understand how people viewed end times.
During a Wisdom Wednesday several years ago, Dr. Waters answered the question, “Does the apostle Paul teach a rapture?” Dr. Waters defines the rapture, according to many evangelicals, as a time when believers will be secretly brought up to Christ and prophecies concerning Israel will come to pass. Based on this definition, Dr. Waters says Paul does not teach a rapture. In Thessalonians, Paul teaches that Christ will return, believers will meet him, all human beings will be judged, and believers will be with Christ forever. Paul does not teach that there will be a long period of time between each of these steps, or that these events will be secret.
There is plenty of confusion and different theologies around the rapture, so many Christians have taken a hands-off approach to understanding the end times. Others still find the end times a confusing or scary proposition. Dr. Waters says this isn’t necessary because believers waiting upon the return of Christ, should be full of hope. The teachings of the return of Christ should encourage Christians to be joyful and turn themselves toward serving and sharing their hope and joy with the world.
As the episode ends, Dr. Waters suggests some resources for listeners interested in learning more about the theology of the rapture and end times.
Phillip Holmes: Before we dive into this week’s episode of Mind + Heart, we want to take a moment to highlight RTS Global, the online program at Reformed Theological Seminary. Do you want to earn a graduate degree from a trusted seminary but don’t know if you have the time? Reformed Theological Seminary offers three Masters of Arts programs available 100 percent online. These degrees are perfect for anyone pursuing full-time vocational ministry, interested in PhD work, or any aspiration where theological education might enhance your gifts. These programs allow you to study at your own pace, attend class completely online, and have regular interactions with your professor and teacher’s assistants. Study in a way that suits you. Learn more today at rts.edu/online.
Welcome to the Mind + Heart podcast from Reformed Theological Seminary, which features interviews and more from the faculty and friends of Reformed Theological Seminary. We created this podcast to assist you in your daily quest to love God and love your neighbor. I’m your host, Phillip Holmes, and this week I’m joined by my guest, Dr. Guy Waters. Dr. Waters is the James M. Baird, Jr. Professor of New Testament at RTS Jackson and the academic dean for RTS Houston and RTS Dallas. In 2003, he became a teaching elder in the Mississippi Valley Presbytery. He served as the chair of the credentials committee for more than 10 years. Dr. Waters, welcome to the show. Thank you for joining us.
Guy Waters: Thank you for having me, Phillip. It’s great to be here.
Holmes: Absolutely. Tell us a little bit about yourself. A lot of people may not know you. I’m sure many have read a lot of the things that you’ve written, perhaps even heard you preach. But briefly, give us some background information on yourself. What’s your origin story? Where did you grow up? How did the Lord call you to himself?
Waters: Thank you. I grew up in and around Washington, DC, Maryland, and Virginia. I was raised in the church, in the Lutheran Church, through my mother’s family, a long line of Lutherans. But I didn’t know the Lord and didn’t become a believer until I met believers my own age at college. The Lord used that to bring me to himself. My wife, whom I’ve known since we were 14 and 15—we were highschool sweethearts. She has a very similar story herself. By God’s grace, we were both brought to faith in him. We’ve been married now for a little over 23 years. It’s been a joy to serve together, and it’s a joy to be here at RTS and to serve Christ’s church.
Holmes: That’s awesome. I learned several things about you that I didn’t know, and I think we’ve known each other—at least I’ve known of you since 2006. I think you were teaching at Belhaven my freshman year, and I think that you transitioned by the time I became a sophomore to RTS, where, of course, I also took classes under you as well. But I had no idea you were from Washington, DC. I had no idea that you grew up in the Lutheran church. How did you make the transition to the PCA?
Waters: Well, I was a student at the University of Pennsylvania, and a number of my Christian friends invited me to go with them to church. We were attending Tenth Presbyterian Church in Center City, Philadelphia. James Boyce was the senior pastor at the time. This would have been the mid-90s. That was my earliest introduction to the PCA. Backing up a little bit, I mentioned my wife and I came from a very similar background. She had a friend who was a member at Fourth Presbyterian Church, Bethesda, Maryland. We were looking for a church where the Bible was taught. She recommended that we go there. We both believe we were converted that first Sunday that we visited. They’re a church of the EPC (Evangelical Presbyterian Church). So God in his kind providence really brought us to the Presbyterians. We’re grateful for our fellowship in the body of Christ across the denominations, but we’re glad to be where the Lord has placed us.
Holmes: That’s awesome. So as we kind of segue into this week’s episode, I have to ask you this question. I didn’t prepare you for this one, but I thought it would be an interesting or a helpful introduction into this week’s episode. Are you a movie person, Dr. Waters?
Waters: I think I’m too impatient to be a movie person. I do watch movies, but not nearly as many as some of my friends have.
Holmes: I gotcha. I’m curious, have you ever watched any of the Left Behind movies?
Waters: Yes, I have a story behind that.
Holmes: Thank you. This is awesome. I couldn’t have planned this any better. Tell us the story, if you don’t mind sharing.
Waters: No, not at all. I was a doctoral student at Duke University, and I have extended family in eastern North Carolina. There was a church out there, a Dutch Reformed church, that invited me to preach. So through that, my wife and I got connected with great aunts and uncles. It was wonderful. One time I had come out to preach, and we’re staying over at my Great-Aunt Lucy’s. Great-Aunt Lucy was one you didn’t say no to. It was, “Yes, ma’am.” We sat down in her living room, and she announced that she had a movie she wanted to show us. It was Left Behind with Kirk Cameron. We watched the whole movie. That was my introduction to Left Behind. I have seen the film, and that’s my story.
Holmes: That’s awesome. What did you think about it at the time? What was your theology at the time?
The touchstone of truth is not going to be a film or a novel. It’s going to be the Word of God.Waters: At the time I had graduated from Westminster. I was on board with the Westminster Standards. I had not grown up in dispensationalism. I had not been exposed personally to that teaching beyond books and writings. I suppose the impression that was left on me—and I haven’t read the novels, the LaHaye-Jenkins novels—but it struck me that this is a very powerful and compelling medium. When you see these things on the screen or you read them in fiction, it has a way of grabbing the imagination. I thought, “This really is a powerful way to bring these things home to people.” I hadn’t appreciated that before. Again, I have my disagreements with that theology, but it helped me to see a dimension of the way in which this has been taught and promoted within the evangelical church that I had not experienced before.
Holmes: Oh yeah, that’s a really helpful insight. I appreciate it because sometimes I don’t know if we fully appreciate the power of creativity and media when it comes to its ability to help us make things that are foreign or complex, perhaps, plain and clear. These things in no way should replace the preaching of the Word. They should in no way replace the ordinary means of grace. But at the same time, as long as they don’t violate what the Bible is teaching in its presentation, these things can be extremely helpful. Would you agree with that sentiment?
Waters: I would. Next to the Bible, since the Reformation, probably the most beloved and popular work of Christian literature would be Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, which is a work of powerful imagination. It’s a valuable book. I’ve read it several times. I love that book just for the reasons that you mention. I think, like any medium, it can do good things and it can do bad things. I think in the case of what we’re talking about here, a certain view of the end times, I don’t mention the film or my experience of the film in any way to put it down, only to say, “This is a very powerful medium for getting a point across.” In the end—and my brothers who are dispensational would fully agree with me here—the touchstone of truth is not going to be a film or a novel. It’s going to be the Word of God. That’s where we have to go, whether it’s Pilgrim’s Progress or Left Behind or anything else.
Holmes: Yeah, that’s extremely helpful. Thank you for that answer, that gracious answer as well. So this week’s episode, and this is the reason why I asked the Dr. Waters, “Have you seen this movie?” This week’s episode is entitled “Rapture,” and when I hear that word, one of the first things, to Dr. Water’s point, that I think about is the movie Left Behind. It was the first time I was exposed to even the concept of rapture or was forced to think deeply about it, maybe not exposed to it, but was forced to think deeply about it. I think I was about 12 or 13 when that movie came out. In 2016, Dr. Waters answered the question, “Does the Apostle Paul teach a rapture?” via Wisdom Wednesday, which many of you know is our weekly Q&A video series. I wanted to bring Dr. Waters back to elaborate more on this particular topic of the rapture. Before we go any further, let’s take a moment and listen to Dr. Waters’s response to the question: Does the Apostle Paul teach a rapture?
Waters: The question is, does the apostle Paul teach a rapture? Now, the rapture, I think, is something we need to define. As many evangelicals understand the Scripture to teach that, it is thought to be secret snatching up of believers at some unspecified time in the future, that is, unspecified to us. When the church on earth will be taken up to Christ, they will remain in the air above earth. The prophecies concerning Israel, prophecies that are said to concern Israel on earth, will play themselves out to fulfillment until Christ comes. He sets up what’s said to be his millennial kingdom. There’s the great and final battle, followed by the final judgment to come. That’s a fairly widespread understanding of the last things.
Strictly speaking, yes, the Apostle Paul does teach a rapture, but does he teach a secret rapture according to premillennial eschatology? And I think the answer is no.An appeal is made to 1 Thessalonians 4:17 to support the portion of that scheme that I described in terms of the rapture. First Thessalonians 4:17, reading out of the English Standard Version: “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them [that is the dead in Christ] in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.” Our word “rapture” is taken from that verb, which is translated “will be caught up together.” So strictly speaking, yes, the Apostle Paul does teach a rapture, but does he teach a secret rapture according to premillennial eschatology? And I think the answer is no.
When we look at this passage, what we see is that Paul is describing something that, far from being secret, is in fact quite public. You see that from a couple of details in the passage. There is Paul’s statement that we will be caught up together with them in the clouds. Now, clouds, of course, is a way, particularly in the Old Testament, to describe the divine presence. We see that imagery especially in Daniel 7, quoted by Jesus at his trial in Mark 14, “You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” That is a word that is uttered to the high priest who is an enemy of Jesus. Far from being something that is secret, that concerns only believers, the appearance of the Son of Man in the clouds will be visible, will be public, and will be evident even to unbelievers. In the following verse, Paul says this will come with “a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God.” All of those are audible, visible phenomena, not things you would expect with a secret private rapture.
The appearance of the Son of Man in the clouds will be visible, will be public, and will be evident even to unbelievers.Further, the phrase “the trumpet of God” is used elsewhere by the Apostle Paul to signal the bodily resurrection and the final judgment. Reading 1 Thessalonians 4 in light of 1 Corinthians 15, we expect the Apostle Paul to be describing the events immediately leading up to the day of judgment. We don’t expect, as the dispensational, premillennial scheme of things would argue, a long interim between what Paul describes here in 1 Thessalonians 4 and the last judgment.
What Paul is describing here, taken by itself, taken with Paul’s statements elsewhere, is that Christ will return. We don’t know the day and the hour. When he comes, we will meet him. All human beings will be judged before Christ, in the presence of Christ, clothed in our resurrection bodies, some raised unto glory, others raised unto shame. Believers will be with Christ forever. That’s the hope that Paul set before the Thessalonians as they were grieving, as they were confused, and that’s the hope of God’s people in every age in the church.
Holmes: Dr. Waters, if I’m listening to all of this, I’ve been thinking about Left Behind, we’ve talked about Left Behind, and there are so many different end time views, when it comes to what people believe. You mentioned dispensational brothers and then, of course, various other traditions as well. Then you bring in books like Revelation and stuff like that and really start getting deeply into eschatology and symbols. A lot of that stuff can be confusing and overwhelming. It can make some Christians—and I think this is the posture that many Christians have taken—think that ultimately it doesn’t really matter. Jesus is coming back, and we’ll all see what happens when he returns. So I want to pose this question to you: does our theology or understanding of the rapture really matter? And if so, why and how?
When the Apostle Paul looks to the future, it is always a perspective of confidence and anticipation.Waters: It’s a great question, Phillip. Let me speak broadly to begin, and we can take it from there, about the way that the Apostle Paul and the New Testament writers speak about the future. They are, remember, writing for Christians who are in churches. This is not a theological manual for seminary students, though we study the Scripture in seminary. When they talk about the future, when they talk about the return of Christ and everything that’s happening around it, this isn’t something that they say, “OK, those of you who are not ministers or teachers, you can skip on to the next chapter now.” This is for all of us. So as Christian believers, wherever we are in the Christian life, whatever God has called us to do for him, we need to know what God has revealed about the things to come. That would be the first thing.
I’d say the second thing we need to remember is that when the Apostle Paul looks to the future, it is always a perspective of confidence and anticipation. “Maranatha,” 1 Corinthians 15, “Lord, come quickly.” He cannot wait for Jesus Christ to come back. It is not something that he dreads or fears. I think it’s good to take a moment to ask why. Because for unbelief, there is real and justifiable dread for the return of Christ. People, the New Testament tells us, are going to hide themselves under rocks and mountains and call out to them to fall upon them, to hide them from the wrath of the Lamb. But Paul says that’s not what as believers we’re going to do at all. We can’t wait for Christ to come back.
As we await the return of Christ, we’re awaiting a future that is only full of hope and glory and life and far exceeds the greatest blessedness of Christian living in the present.The reason is because we now stand righteous in Christ. Our sins have been laid on him. His righteousness has been transferred to us, imputed to us. We receive it by faith alone. We stand righteous now in the presence of God. That final verdict has been rendered. Christ has paid the penalty. He has won for us eternal life. Nothing can take that from us. We can’t lose it. It’s been given to us by God, and we’re kept secure. As we await the return of Christ, we’re awaiting a future that is only full of hope and glory and life and far exceeds the greatest blessedness of Christian living in the present. Any understanding of the future that would prompt dread or fear in the heart of a Christian, I think we’ve got to revisit that because that is just not the approach that we see across the Scripture towards the return of Christ.
The third thing I would mention, again, just speaking generally here, is that as we look to the future, Paul, and this would be true of all the biblical writers, they’re not chiefly concerned with setting out an elaborate timetable. They want us to know that Christ is coming back, and then they proceed to apply it practically. How often in Paul’s writings and in Peter’s writings will they tell the church, “Now, look, because Christ is coming back, you ought to live this way. You ought to stand ready. You ought to live lives of love and of service”? There’s a deeply transformative dimension to the teaching of Christ’s return in the New Testament. It’s not intended to turn us in on ourselves. It’s intended to send us out to serve others, to love others, to tell others about Jesus Christ as we live in the enjoyment of what he’s done for us. There should be a radiance and a joy and an outwardness that characterizes our lives the more and more we’re steeped in the teaching of Christ’s return in the New Testament.
Holmes: That’s super helpful. I think my favorite point you just made had to do with the importance of or at least the theme of hope that’s consistent throughout Scripture as we think about the return of Christ. In other words, as we are understanding and thinking through our theology of the end times and what’s going to happen, your point is that the Scripture seems to provide us these truths in order to provide hope, not to trigger fear, not to trigger any type of dread of the future. I think that’s really helpful for a lot of Christians because I think that many, when they think about end times—right? I would imagine that if I did a survey and I said, “‘End times’ or ‘rapture.’ What emotion does that trigger for you?” I would imagine that there would be some anxiety. There would be some fear. There would be probably even—maybe if you want to say confusion is a feeling—there’d be some confusion as well. But the reality of the hope that we have in Jesus means that when we think about his return, the emotion should be one of excitement. It should even help us persevere through the trials and tribulations that we’re currently facing right now on this side of heaven.
There’s a deeply transformative dimension to the teaching of Christ’s return in the New Testament.Thank you so much for that point because I think that’s extremely helpful. I think that’s going to be encouraging to a lot of our listeners. If a Christian wanted to start forming a more robust theology of the rapture or end times, but they wanted something that was accessible, that made these things clear, what resources would you recommend?
Waters: Well, there are a lot of good resources out there. Again, different readers have different levels of willingness to jump into more or less difficult work. But a place that one could start: Cornelis Venema has done a book called Christ and the Future—it’s a smaller work of a much larger work called Promise of the Future—that Banner of Truth has put out. It’s an introduction to the New Testament’s teaching on the future and a gracious response to some of the views that are current within the church, views that we might have our differences with and do have our differences with. I think it’s written at an accessible level. That would be a place to start.
For someone who wanted to work at a little more advanced level, but still something that was quite readable, I think that longer work, Promise of the Future, would be well worth a look. Anthony Hoekema’s The Bible and the Future, put out by Eerdmans some years ago, is a very clear, very fair treatment of these issues in a way that I think keeps the emphasis on the very positive things that you were stressing in your comments a moment ago.
He’s a prolific writer, but if you can put your hands on the works of Greg Beale, he thinks a lot about the importance of living between the first coming and the return of Christ and what the return of Christ means for us. His commentary, for instance, on 1 and 2 Thessalonians is written accessibly. It’s not an especially technical commentary. It can even be read devotionally, I would think. That would work through some of the questions that come up in connection with the rapture in 1 Thessalonians 4. So those might be some places to start.
Holmes: That’s extremely helpful. Dr. Waters, thank you so much for joining us today, and thank you to our listeners for tuning in. We hope you enjoyed this week’s episode featuring Dr. Guy Waters. I would also like to thank the RTS family, church partners, students, alumni, and donors for the many ways you make the work of Reformed Theological Seminary possible.
The clip we listened to earlier is from our weekly video series Wisdom Wednesday, where relevant matters of the Christian faith are addressed by RTS faculty and friends with truth, candor, and grace. Access our entire archive or submit a question at rts.edu/wisdom-wednesday. Mind + Heart is powered by Reformed Theological Seminary, where we desire to raise up pastors and other leaders with a mind for truth and a heart for God. Thank you.