The Pretribulational Hope of the Early Church

Thanks to a widespread appreciation for the literal interpretation of Scripture and the popularity of the Scofield Bible, many Christians of the mid-19th century began adopting a doctrine called, dispensational premillennialism. One of the key tenets of this theological system is the pretribulational rapture of the Lord’s Church (usually known simply as, “the rapture” or, “the pre-trib rapture”, for short). This is the doctrine held by most American Evangelical churches, such as Baptists, Bible churches, Brethren churches, mainstream Pentecostal churches and some Churches of Christ. On the other hand, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, and most Presbyterian churches tend to reject dispensationalism and the “pre-trib rapture” doctrine in favor of amillennialism. Therefore, Christendom is divided about this matter and, generally, about how to properly interpret Bible prophecy.

Essentially, the major disagreement about the rapture relates to how one ought to interpret passages which foretell the Lord’s coming. Does 1 Thessalonians 4:13 – 18 teach a distinct coming of the Lord to snatch up his Church before the tribulation period, or does it refer to his final advent at the end of the age? Does 2 Thessalonians 2:1 – 3 teach the revealing of the “man of lawlessness” (Antichrist) will be after the departure of the church from this earth, or is the text describing a spiritual departure? Does Revelation 3:10 teach the saints will be caught up to be with the Lord before “the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world” or does this passage contain a promise which was somehow fulfilled in the past? The correct interpretation of these and other prophetic texts is important but not our focus for this study. Our question is, “What was the view of the early church?” If it can be proven that early believers affirmed the pre-trib rapture, it gives credibility to the dispensational viewpoint, which is under heavy dispute in the religious world today.

We are often told by those who vehemently oppose the pre-trib rapture doctrine, that no one held or taught this view until the 1830’s, when John Nelson Darby, Margaret MacDonald and a few others began spreading it. About five years ago, when I launched my intensive study of Bible prophecy, I found this common argument to be very compelling. After all, if it cannot be shown that anyone before the nineteenth century believed in the pre-trib rapture, it brings the entire teaching into question. The Bible itself should be the final authority about whether or not a teaching is true but if not a single ancient source can be cited to prove early believers interpreted Scripture as modern dispensationalists, it becomes suspect as a fraudulent innovation.

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This 11th century Slavic portrait depicts some “church fathers” who greatly influenced Christian thinking in the formative years of Christianity. Their writings inform us about how the early believers interpreted Scripture.

It is well known, and admitted by all sides, that premillennialism was not just a prominent view, but the dominant view of the early church. In fact, there is no clear, historical evidence of amillennialism being taught until the third century. The early generations of Christians anticipated both a literal seven years
of trouble (cf. Dan. 9:27; Matt. 24:21, 29; Rev. 7:14) and a literal 1,000-year reign of Christ upon the earth (Rev. 20:1 – 6). Indisputably, the futurist hermeneutic (the interpretation which holds that Bible prophecy is largely unfulfilled) was very prevalent in the first, second, and third centuries, but the existence of dispensationalism, including the distinct hope of a pre-trib rapture, is unclear to many students of church history.

Therefore, it is appropriate to examine pertinent statements made by the earliest Christian sources. What was their understanding about events to take place during the end times? Did they adhere to an interval of years between Christ’s deliverance of his Church and his arrival to this earth to reign in glory for a thousand years? There is no doubt that some early Christians held a post-tribulational viewpoint (i.e. that the Lord’s coming for his Church is not an imminent event but that it will be preceded by God’s wrath, identifiable signs and the revealing of Antichrist). However, this was not the consensus of the early church. Others clearly held and taught the pre-trib viewpoint.

The Shepherd of Hermas is one of the earliest extra-biblical Christian documents to be written. It is purported to have been authored by Pius, Bishop of Rome (81-154), or one of his contemporaries. It states the following: “You have escaped from great tribulation on account of your faith, and because you did not doubt in the presence of such a beast. Go, therefore, and tell the elect of the Lord His mighty deeds and say to them that this beast is a type of the great tribulation that is coming. If then ye prepare yourselves, and repent with all your heart, and turn to the Lord, it will be possible for you to escape it, if your heart be pure and spotless, and ye spend the rest of the days of your life in serving the Lord blamelessly.” The author of this early Christian document clearly believed the faithful will be rescued before the tribulation period.

Well known early church father, Irenaeus (120-202), in his renowned work, Against Heresies, states as follows: “And, therefore, when in the end the Church shall be suddenly caught up from this, it is said there shall be tribulation such as has not been since the beginning, neither shall be.” Cyprian (d. 154), a church father and bishop of the second century, wrote, “We who see that terrible things have begun, and know that still more terrible things are imminent, may regard it as the greatest advantage to depart from it as quickly as possible. Do you not give God thanks, do you not congratulate yourself that by an early departure you are taken away, and delivered from the shipwrecks and disasters that are imminent? Let us greet the day which assigns each of us to his own home, which snatches us hence and sets us free from the shares of the world and restores us to paradise and the kingdom”. Can there be any doubt that Cyprian was writing about his hope in the pre-trib rapture of the Church?

Another second century document called, “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles”, states the following: “Then shall the creation of men come into the fire of trial, and many shall be made to stumble and shall perish; but they that endure in their faith shall be saved from under the curse itself. And then shall appear the signs of the truth; first the sign of an outspreading of heaven; then the sign of the sound of the trumpet; and the third, the resurrection of the dead; yet not of all, but as it is said: The Lord shall come and all his saints with Him. Then shall the world see the Lord coming upon the clouds of heaven.” According to this unknown author, Christians resurrected before the “curse” of the tribulation will return at a time when Old Testament saints are to be raised, which is at the end of the tribulation. Ephraem the Syrian (306-373), an important Christian figure of the fourth century, wrote, “For all the saints and elect of God are gathered, prior to the tribulation that is to come, and are taken to the Lord lest they see the confusion that is to overwhelm the world.” Ephraem obviously held that all Christians will be raptured before, not after, the tribulation.

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This 1974 painting by Charles Anderson depicts pandemonium taking place on the earth as Christ returns to take the Church before the Great Tribulation.

In conclusion, there is overwhelming evidence that many early believers affirmed and waited in expectation of both the pre-trib rapture as well as the premillennial reign of Jesus Christ. This alone is not conclusive evidence that the doctrine is Biblical, but it refutes the incorrect claim that dispensational thought originated in the 1830’s with Darby, MacDonald and others. The new revival of the pre-trib doctrine does not prove it is of recent origin. – MAH

 

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