The History of the Pre-trib Rapture


As more and more people embrace the doctrines of the Reformation, many of these people fail to discard the errors that some of the Reformers were unable to discover in their limited lifetimes. 

Many of the Covenant  Calvinists embrace the Roman Catholic ideology of amillennialism. Furthermore, many within this tradition, and even within the premillennial family, assert that the doctrine of a pre-trib rapture did not develop until the 1800s. Such statements are terribly inaccurate. 

I agree with Dr. Tim Lahaye, Dr. Richard Mayhue, and Dr. Wayne Brindle when they state: "The timing of the rapture is not a cardinal doctrine that should divide God's people, but those who interpret the Bible literally find many strong reasons to believe that the rapture will be pre-tribulational" (The Popular Encyclopedia of Bible Prophecy, 289).

No matter whether one believes in a pre-trib rapture or not, there are historical statements that verify that people have indeed believed this teaching before the 1800s.

The Early Church Fathers Were Premillennial

It is clear that the early church immediately following the apostles held to a premillennial view of Christ's coming to earth. These theologians embraced two key truths concerning Christ's return to earth. The idea of an any moment return and a coming of Christ to rule as the political and spiritual king over the world were advocated by many of the earliest theologians. Here is a partial list of some of the theologians who embraced the doctrine of imminency and/or the future kingdom rule of Christ:

Papias (60-130)

Clement of Rome (90-100)

The Sherpherd of Hermas (96-150) 

Ignatius of Antioch (98-117)

Barnabas (100)

The Didache (100-160)

Justin Martyr (110-165)

The Epistle of Barnabas (117-138)

Irenaeus (120-202)

Tertullian (145-220)

Hippolytus (185-236)

Cyprian (200-250)

Lactantius (260-330)

From these men we see the doctrine of Christ's soon return within a premillennial framework. The doctrine permeated the early church. Some of these men even had direct contact with the apostles.

Two Pretribulational References in the Early Church

1. The Shepherd of Hermas (95-150)

The Shepherd of Hermas was written between 96-150 AD. This document provides a statement that resembles a teaching of a pre-trib rapture doctrine. Though it is not exactly as found in modern day scholarly pretribulational writings, it still shows that an idea existed in some degree that God's people could escape the future tribulation that was to come on the whole earth. The text reads:

"You have escaped from the 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 serving the Lord blamelessly."

This is not a systematic teaching, nor does it answer all of the questions that one may have. But it does give a reference to the possibility that God's people can escape the great tribulation.

2. Victorinus ( Well known by 270 and died in 303 A.D.)

Victorinus wrote a commentary on the book of Revelation. In one place he made an interesting statement that reflects his idea that the church would be removed prior to the tribulation. Of course his ideas were not systematic, and some will argue that he contradicts himself in other places, which may very well be true. But even with such an admission it still serves us well to see that early in the church history someone taught in some sense that God's church could escape the tribulation period by being removed from the earth. His commentary notes in Revelation 6:14 indicate a pre-trib reference of some sort: 

"And the heaven withdrew as a scroll that is rolled up." For the heaven to be rolled away, that is, that the Church shall be taken away. "And every mountain and the islands removed from their places intimate that in the last persecution all men departed from their places; that is, that the good will be removed, seeking to avoid persecution.

This reference gives light into a developing idea in the earliest periods of the church. There was an idea that God's people could be spared the terrible time of wrath thatGod would pour out on the earth by removing the saints. The saint's departure from the earth would occur so they would not undergo the terible wrath at the beginning of the judgments of God upon the sinful unbelieving world.  



Three Clear Summary Points from the Early Church Fathers' Teachings

  • These early church fathers expected Christ to physically return to earth followed by a 1000 year kingdom rule on earth.
  • By many of the writings we can see they believed in the possibility of an any moment return of Christ with some statements that resemble a pre-trib view point.
  • Even though the early church was under heavy persecution these teachers believed there would still come a distinct time of great tribulation in the future.

Two Pretribulational Teachings in the Medieval Church

1. Ephraem of Nisibis (306-373)

Ephraem wrote an important sermon "On the Last Times, the Antichrist and the End of the World." As a prominent theologian and prolific writer of the Eastern Byzantine church, he advocated for a pretribulational rapture position for the church. Dr. Grant Jeffrey has noted that he had a profound love for the Scriptures. Below is a selected quote that concerns the escape of God's people from the horrible tribulation. He stated:

"We ought to understand thoroughly therefore, my brothers, what is imminent or overhanging.  Already there have been hunger and plagues, violent movements of nations and signs, which have been predicted by the Lord, they have already been fulfilled, and there is not other which remains, except the advent of the wicked one in the completion of hte Roman kingdom.  Why therefore are we ovvupied with wordly business, and why is our mind held fixed on the lusts of the world or the anxieties of the ages?  Why therefore do we not reject every care of earthly actions and prepare ourselves for the meeting of the Lord Christ, so that He may draw us from the confusion, which overwhelms the world? Believe you me, dearest brothers, because the coming of the Lord is nigh, believe you me, because the end of the world is at hand, believe me, because it it the very last time.  Or do you not believe unless you see it with your eyes?  See to it that this sentence be not fulfilled among you of the prophet who declares:  "Woe to those who desire to see the Day of the Lord!"  Because all saints and the Elect of the Lord are gathered together before the tribulation which is to about to come and are taken to the Lord, in order that they may not see at any time the confusion which overwhelms the world because of our sins.  And so brothers, most dear to me, it is the eleventh hour, and the end of this world comes to the harvest, and angels, armed and prepared, hold sickles in their earth exists with blind infidelity, arriving at its downfall early.  Commotions are brought forth, wars of diverse peoples and battles and invasions of the barbarians threaten, and our regions shall be desolated, and we neither become very much afraid of the report nor ofthe appearance, in order that we may at least do penance; because they hurl fear at us, and we do not wish to be changed although we at least stand in need of penance for our actions!

Notice that there is a clear teaching on the rapture of the saints before the terrible tribulation period. This theologian admonishes the people not to desire to see the Day of the Lord? Why? Because in his mind to see the day of the Lord means a person is not a believer. The believers will be snatched away and taken to the Lord before this time period begins. Look closely at what he says again:


See to it that this sentence be not fulfilled among you of the prophet who declares:  "Woe to those who desire to see the Day of the Lord!"  Because all saints and the Elect of the Lord are gathered together before the tribulation which is to about to come and are taken to the Lord, in order that they may not see at any time the confusion which overwhelms the world because of our sins."

Scholars Dr. Ice and James Stitzinger provide some other insights as to what this theologian taught concerning the end times. In many respects this theologian taught many truths that are common among the Dispensational system of interpretation today. They note that Ephreum 

"develops an elaborate biblical eschatology, including a distinction between the rapture and the second coming of Christ. It describes the imminent rapture, followed by a three-and-half-year-long Great Tribulation under the rule of Antichrist, followed by the coming of Christ, the defeat of the Antichrist, and the eternal state. His view includes a parenthesis between the fulfillment of Daniel's sixty-ninth and seventieth weeks (Daniel 9:24-27)." 

Keep in mind that this reference is 1500 years before the time that many critics of the pre-trib view claim this doctrine developed. Many falsely advocate that the idea of a pre-trib rapture view developed in 1800s through J.N. Darby or through some sects and mystics. Such a view does not hold water, though it is popular in many circles. 

For example, I once visited a Reformed Baptist Church in Greenville. It was a question and answer time session hosted by two pastors connected to the fellowship. Students from North Greenville College, Furman Univeristy, and other colleges, universities, and churches were present. A sincere man raised his hand and asked this question: "Why will no one teach on the book of Revelation and prophecy anymore? Can you give me a biblical answer to the issue of Bible prophecy." I thought it was a great question and I was interested to hear a biblically based answer from Scripture by the two pastors. Sadly, what was given in reply caused several of us in the room to have a serious concern for the pastors answering questions. Instead of providing an answer to the student's question the two pastors took the next ten minutes to simply attack the idea of a pre-trib rapture view. These two men did not take the time to provide for a biblical defense of their view. All they did was attack the pre-trib view as a modern invention that developed in the 1800s. After they attacked such a view, with little to no defense of their own view, I called the men on the carpet for a failure to study history and to defend their own view biblically. I asked them about several men who held this view before the 1800s, such as with Ephraem and others I'll discuss below. They had no reply to the information I gave to them.    

2. Brother Dolcino (d. 1307)

One scholar has found a quote that relates to the teachings and disciples of Dolcino. Dolcino and his followers held to some form of rapture view whereby people were translated to heaven before the time of judgment on the Antichrist. The teaching is as follows:

"Again, [Dolcino believed and preached and taught] that within those three years Dolcino himself and his followers will preach the coming of the Antichrist. And that the Antichrist was coming into this world within the bounds of the said three and a half years; and after he had come, then he [Dolcino] and his followers would be transferred into Paradise, in which are Enoch and Elijah. And in this way they will be preserved unharmed from the persecution of Antichrist. And that then Enoch and Elijah themselves would descend on the earth for the purpose of preaching [against] Antichrist. Then they would be killed by him or by his servants, and thus Antichrist would reign for a long time. But when the Antichrist is dead, Dolcino himself, who then would be the holy pope, and his preserved followers, will descend on the earth, and will preach the right faith of Christ to all, and will convert those who will be living then to the true faith of Jesus Christ"

Teachers and Theologians after the Protestant Reformation Who Believed in a Pre-trib Rapture

At the time of the Protestant Reformation a major shift in how one interpreted the Bible caused the church to adjust in her views on the end times. Predominately under the Roman Catholic Church the Bible was interpreted allegorically. Scripture dealing with end times, prophetic texts, for the most part suffered from the hands of those who would not take the text literally. However, as the Reformation grew and as people began to return to a literal interpretation of the Bible the more people shifted to see that Christ was going to come back to earth to rule and reign. Many of the Puritans and Pilgrims, the 2nd generation of the Reformation movement, adopted the idea that not only was Christ going to reign on the earth but he would also translate his church saints before the awful time of his outpouring of wrath. Several of these scholars in some form or another held to a pre-tribulational rapture position.

1. Joseph Mede (1627): Clavis Apocalyptica

Some believe that he in this work made a distinction between the rapture of the saints in contrast to the second of Christ to earth.

2. Increase Mather (1639-1723)

Increase Mather was a pastor, scholar, and was the first President of Harvard College. Paul Boyer has noted that this Puritan scholar proved "that the saints would be caught up into the air beforehand, thereby escaping the final conflagration." This teaching from Mather was an early formulation of the rapture doctrine it seems. 

3. Peter Jurieu (1687) 

Peter Jurie in his book "Approaching Deliverance of the Church " (1687) taught that Christ would come in the air to rapture the saints and return to heaven before the battle of Armageddon.He spoke of a secret Rapture prior to His coming in glory and judgment at Armageddon.

4. John Gill (1748)

Dr. John Gill was one of the most brilliant scholars of his day. This Calvinist Baptist theologian wrote a full commentary set on the Bible in 1748. In this commentary he made a statement in his notes on 1 Thessalonians 4 that supported a time difference between the rapture of the saints and the coming of Christ to earth. He said: Christ will stop and will be visible to all, and as easily discerned by all, good and bad, as the body of the sun at noon-day; as yet He will not descend on earth, because it is not fit to receive Him; but when that and its works are burnt up, and it is purged and purified by fire, and become a new earth, He'll descend upon it, and dwell with his saints in it: and this suggests another reason why He'll stay in the air, and His saints shall meet Him there, and whom He'll take up with Him into the third heaven, till the general conflagration and burning of the world is over, and to preserve them from it.... 

5. Morgan Edwards (1742-1744) the Founder of Brown University

Edwards was a prominent Baptist Leader in his day. When he came to America he was recommended to a pastoral role by the famous John Gill. He founded the first Baptist College in the colonies. This college later became known as Brown University, a well known Ivy League University of our times. Edwards taught that Christ would return for his church saints 3.5 years before he returned to establish the Kingdom of Christ on earth, the 1000 year reign of Christ. He specifically said: 
"The distance between the first and second resurrection will be somewhat more than a thousand years. I say, somewhat more--, because the dead saints will be raised, and the living changed at Christ's 'appearing in the air' (1 Thess. 4:17); and this will be about three years and a half before the millennium, as we shall see hereafter: but will he and they abide in the air all that time? No: they will ascend to paradise, or to some one of those many 'mansions in the Father's house' (John 14:2)."
Summary: Orthodox Believers of History Have Believed in a Pretribulational View
As stated earlier in this link, the timing of the rapture debate should not be classed as an "A" level truth. The fact of Christ's coming is a larger issue. Then next in the scale would be if Christ will rule on the earth as King over all the earth. Those two issues are higher on the scale than the exact time of his rapture of the church age saints. To divide a fellowship or to break fellowship with a body over this one doctrine shows a sign of immaturity. 
However, Christians must recognize that those who paint pre-tribulationists as fanatics, fringe movement Christians, or as heretics who have emabraced some strange and novel idea never heard of until the 1800's have done a disfavor to the entire body of Christ. Whatever position one holds to in this area, everyone should at the least admit good, sound, and orthodox believers have taught this view before the 1800's time period. And many today continue to see this as a valid position to hold from the Scriptures when properly interpreted in a plain, consistent, and normal manner with the words given their ordinary usage in historical context.