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Pretribulation Rapture Signpost #9: Church History

Pretribulation Rapture Signpost #9: Church History
By Jonathan C. Brentner

“The pretribulation rapture cannot possibly be true because no one believed in it until 150 years ago.” I hear or read similar statements almost every week.

Those who mock our beliefs in such a way make two critical errors. First, they base their denials of the rapture on church history rather than Scripture. Second, the claim that a belief in pretribulation rapture originated 150 years ago with John Darby is totally false.

This brings us to our next signpost on the path to establishing a biblical basis for the pretribulation rapture: church history. The purpose of this signpost is not to justify our belief in the pretribulation rapture on the basis of history nor is it to convince those who reject it on this faulty basis.

Rather, my intent is to provide those who already believe in the rapture with evidence of a belief in it from the earliest centuries of the church.

Where Did We Get the Word “Rapture?”

First, it’s necessary to understand the origin of the word “rapture.” The word comes from a Latin translation of the Bible from about AD 400 called The Vulgate. The Vulgate uses the Latin word “rapturo” to translate the Greek word harpazo in 1 Thessalonians 4:17.

The words “caught up” in our English translations capture the essence of harpazo in this verse just as the Latin word “rapturo” did when Jerome and others translated the Bible into Latin.

Starting in the late 1800’s, Bible teachers began using the word “rapture” to describe what Paul wrote about in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 as well as in 1 Corinthians 15:50-56 and Philippians 3:20-21. These students of Scripture chose a word to describe what the apostle wrote about in these texts. They did not make up a new doctrine, but applied a label to the event Jesus first mentioned an in John 14:2-3 and the apostles later described with greater detail.

So as we examine church history, we do not look for occurrences of the word “rapture” but rather evidences of a belief in Jesus’ return for His church as something distinct from His second coming.

Irenaeus (AD 130 to 202)

In AD 180, a prominent church father named Irenaeus wrote Against Heresies to refute the errors of Gnosticism. Besides addressing the errors of this heresy, this well-known work provides helpful insight into the beliefs of the church at the end of the second century AD.

In Against Heresies, Book 5, Chapter 29, Irenaeus wrote this, “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.’”

In the above quote, Irenaeus used the same Greek word for “caught up” (harpazo) that Paul used in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 for the Lord catching up living believers to meet Him in the air. Irenaeus placed this catching of the church ahead of the time of great tribulation that Jesus talked about in Matthew 24:21, which occurs before Jesus’ return to the earth.

Irenaeus did not use the word “rapture,” but aptly described it as occurring before a time of tribulation on the earth. His reference to both 1 Thessalonians 4:17 and Matthew 24:21 provides a sequence with Christ’s return for His church occurring before the distressing time on earth Jesus spoke about in the Olivet Discourse.

The Shepherd of Hermas (AD 140)

The Shepherd of Hermas is an allegory written about AD 140 that recounts several visions the Lord gave to someone named Hermas. In the fourth vision, Hermas encounters a great beast. He escapes the terror of the beast while at the same time he sees the church appearing as “a virgin arrayed as if she were going forth from a bridal-chamber all in white and with white sandals, veiled up to her forehead, and her head-covering consisted of a turban, and her hair was white.”

The virgin representing the church spoke these words to Hermas:

Go therefore, and declare to the elect of the Lord His mighty works, and tell them that this beast is a type of the great tribulation which is to come. If therefore ye prepare yourselves beforehand, and repent (and turn) unto the Lord with your whole heart, ye shall be able to escape it, if your heart be made pure and without blemish, and if for the remaining days of your life ye serve the Lord blamelessly.

The Shepherd of Hermas expresses a second century belief that the church would escape the tribulation.

Cyprian (AD 200 to 258)

Cyprian, a bishop in the city of Carthage during the third century AD, guided his church through a time of intense persecution.

In his book Treatises of Cyprian he wrote the following:

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 snares of the world and restores us to paradise and the kingdom.

With these words Cyprian expresses his belief in “an early departure” of the church before further disasters occur on the earth. He believed the time of additional trouble was “imminent” and so also a “departure” to take believers away so they would not experience the troubling times ahead. His reference to “snatches us” sounds like the catching up of the church in 1 Thessalonians 4:17.

Is this not a pretribulation rapture that will spare believers from the terrors of the tribulation?

The Apocalypse of Elijah (Third Century AD)

The Apocalypse of Elijah dates from the AD 200’s. It’s an apocryphal work that claims to be a revelation given by angels. The following quote is from author and teacher Dr. Francis Gumerlock’s article in the October 2013 issue of Bibliotheca Sacra, the theological journal of Dallas Theological Seminary.

According to chapter 3 of the Apocalypse of Elijah the “lawless one,” that is, the Antichrist, will arrive on the world scene, will claim to be Christ, will set himself up in Jerusalem … Enoch & Elijah will return & oppose him… executing them…when the end-time persecution of the Antichrist intensifies, Christ will take pity on His people by sending Angels from heaven to snatch up those having the seal of God on their hands & foreheads…remove them from the wrath, and lead them to paradise. There raptured saints will receive white robes…& dwell in safety from Antichrist… After this Christ will return with His saints, who reign with Him for a thousand years.

In this third century AD document of the church, we see a clear distinction between the rapture and the second coming. Jesus snatches up believers to “paradise” in order to remove them “the wrath” happening on the earth. After the tribulation, the church returns with Christ to “reign with Him for a thousand years.”

The Apocalypse of Elijah displays beliefs in both modern day premillennialism and pretribulationism within a hundred years of when the apostles lived.

Ephraim the Syrian (AD 306 to 373)

An unmistakable reference to the pretribulation rapture comes from Saint Ephraim of Edessa who was a monk, a poet, a writer of hymns, and a preacher during the fourth century.

The quote below comes from Ephraem’s sermon entitled On the Last Times, the Antichrist, and the End of the World. Some historians believe someone else wrote it in about AD 622 and ascribed it to Ephraem to add credibility to it. Dr. Grant Jeffrey, who has done extensive research on this sermon, believes it’s more likely Ephraem himself preached the sermon in AD 323.

Believe you me, dearest brother, because the coming (advent) of the Lord is nigh, believe you me, because the end of the world is at hand, believe me, because it is the very last time. Or do you not believe unless you see 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!” 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 because of our sins.

The above quote demonstrates a clear belief in the pretribulation rapture dating back to the early fourth century AD. Even if someone wrote this sermon in AD 622 as some maintain, we still have a definitive reference the pretribulation rapture in church history 1,200 years before John Darby existed.

Brother Dolcino (about 1300)

In 1260, a man named Gerard Sagarello formed the Apostolic Brethren group in northern Italy. They encountered much persecution from the Catholic Church since it was against the law to form any assembly separate from the church.

Later, a man referred to as Brother Dolcino took over the leadership of the Apostolic Brethren and it grew to several thousand. After Dolcino’s death, an anonymous author wrote The History of Brother Dolcino; below is as paragraph taken from this account written in 1316:

Again, [Dolcino believed and preached and taught] 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.”

Though obviously influenced by Roman Catholic beliefs, Dolcino nevertheless believed the Lord would transfer the church into “paradise” to preserve believers “unharmed from the persecution of Antichrist.” And while his view on the second coming is unique to say the least, he does separate it from what we now refer to as the rapture.

Morgan Edwards (1722–95)

We have a clear reference to a pretribulation rapture well before the time of John Darby from a Welsh Baptist named Morgan Edwards.” Here is what Edwards wrote about Jesus’ appearing for His church:

I say, somewhat more—, because the dead saints will be raised, and the living changed at Christ’s “appearing in the air” (I Thes. iv. 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 xiv. 2), and disappear during the foresaid period of time. The design of this retreat and disappearing will be to judge the risen and changed saints; for “now the time is come that judgment must begin,” and that will be “at the house of God” (I Pet. iv. 17).

Dr. Thomas Ice sums up the teaching of Edwards in this way:

Edwards makes three key points that are consistent with modern pretribulationism. First, he clearly separates the rapture from the second coming by an interval of three and-a-half years. Second, he uses modern pre-trib rapture verses (1 Thessalonians 4:17 and John 14:2) to describe the rapture and support his view. Third, he believed the judgment seat of Christ (rewarding) for believers will occur in heaven while the tribulation is raging on earth, as is common in contemporary pretribulationism.

Although it might sound as though he believed in a midtribulation rapture, other quotes from Edwards confirm that he believed in a three and half year tribulation as did John Darby before he later expanded it to seven years.

Almost a century before the time of John Darby help popularize the doctrine of the pretribulation rapture, Morgan Edwards wrote and preached that Jesus would come for His church before the start of tribulation, which he believed would be three and a half years in length.

Summing Up

The belief in Jesus’ return for His church before a time of tribulation on earth existed in the early centuries of the church and as well as a century before the time of John Darby.

Of course, church history does not prove or disprove any doctrine; Scripture alone is our source of belief and practice. It does, however, totally refute the claim that no one believed in the idea of the rapture as separate from the second coming until the late nineteenth century.

Neither church history nor John Darby can account for why the belief in a pretribulation rapture grew so rapidly that it dominated the evangelical church in America as well as in many other countries for much of the twentieth century. This happened as a result of pastors, writers, and teachers clearly expounding the texts that proclaim the appearing of Jesus for His church before the start of the tribulation.

Do not let anyone deceive you with the claim that belief in the rapture did not exist until 150 years ago. First of all, it’s blatantly false. Secondly, it places a greater emphasis on church history than on God’s Word.

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