What the Ancient Church Fathers Believed
By Matt Ward
“Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:17).
I have recently read a significant amount of material about the supposed fallacy of the Pre-Tribulation Rapture of the Church. Some Christian commentators are saying quite openly that the Pre-Tribulation Rapture as a doctrine has now been fundamentally discredited.
The argument seems to be that the Pre-Tribulation Rapture is a doctrine that has only been taught and believed since the 1800s. Ostensibly, the argument is that a Pre-Tribulation Rapture is false because it is a “modern invention.”
Proponents of this view teach that before 1800 and J. N. Darby (1800-1881), the Rapture was not taught in the Christian church at all. They wrongly go on to state that a young Scottish women called Margaret MacDonald is the true originator of the modern Pre-Tribulation Rapture belief system and that she received this information through independent spiritual revelation. The unspoken assertion here is that this revelation was in fact demonic in origin.
Some even going so far as to argue that the concept of a Pre-Tribulation Rapture was completely unknown and unheard of before 1800, therefore lacking any legitimate creditability for today’s Church. These objections have, in these last days, become harsh and bitter.
There is however, a solid biblical basis for believing in a Pre-Tribulation Rapture of the Church.
“Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man” (Luke21:36).
“Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth” (Revelation 3:10).
“By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death: ‘He could not be found, because God had taken him away.’ For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God” (Hebrews 11:5).
The biblical basis for the Rapture of the Church is a subject that has been well-covered elsewhere; this is but a sample.
There is also a wealth of biblical teaching that has from the very beginning been used to teach of a Pre-Tribulation Rapture, using metaphors and imagery from Scripture.
But what did the earliest ancient Church fathers believe regarding a Pre-Tribulation Rapture of the Church? What did these men, some who were taught personally by the Apostles of Jesus Christ, believe? Were these men who became pillars of the early church Pre-Tribulation, Mid-Tribulation or Post-Tribulation Rapture believers?
Or did they not believe in a Rapture at all?
While we need to be remember that the writings of these ancient Church fathers are not on par with Scripture, it is nonetheless important that we know what the early church believed, especially about the Rapture of the Church.
Irenaeus (130 A.D. – 202 AD)
Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp. Polycarp learned his Christian faith from the apostle John, “…the disciple whom Jesus loved…” (John 21:7) As well as writing the gospel that bears his name and a number of early letters, John wrote the Book of Revelation. There could be no better tutor other than the Lord Jesus himself. Both Polycarp and Irenaeus knew John personally.
Irenaeus later became bishop of the church in Lyons, France and is famous for his five volume treatise, Against Heresies, which described and challenged all false teaching from the emerging cults of his day.
Irenaeus believed in the three and a half year reign of the Antichrist as ruler of the world before the Second Coming of Christ. He also believed in a literal millennial reign of Christ on earth following the Second Coming and in the resurrection of the just. Irenaeus also believed in a Pre-Tribulation Rapture of the Church. In Against Heresies 5:29 he wrote:
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.” For this is the last contest of the righteous, in which, when they overcome they are crowned with incorruption.
Note Irenaeus’ use of the, “caught up.” It is the exact same Rapture terminology used in 1 Thessalonians 4. The word used is 1 Thessalonians 4, is “harpazo”, meaning to be “caught up.” Irenaeus believed that the Rapture of the Church occurred prior to the beginning of the Great Tribulation.
Cyprian (200 AD – 258 AD)
Cyprian, the bishop of the early church at Carthage was beheaded for his faith in 258 AD and was a great pillar of the early church. He shepherded his church through intense Roman persecution and was well known for his eloquent treatises in defense of the faith. In his work Treatise of Cyprian he 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 snares of the world and restores us to paradise and the kingdom.
Like Irenaeus, Cyprian, a highly prominent early church father believed in a “…early deliverance” for believers who would be “delivered” from judgments which would be devastating and global in nature. He taught that the Body of Christ would be delivered from the Day of the Lord.
Cyprian taught his followers that, “God has not appointed us to wrath, but salvation…” (1 Thess. 5:9), and joyfully encouraged his church to expect to be “taken away” before the Tribulation begins. Indeed, he exhorted his church to eagerly anticipate the mansions Jesus had gone to heaven to prepare for them individually, as detailed in John 14.
Ephraim the Syrian (306 AD – 373 AD)
There is a genuine sense of urgency about Ephraim’s writings. A deacon in the large church in Syria he later became the bishop of the church at Nisibis. In his work, The Last Times – Two, Ephraim wrote:
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. And so, brothers most dear to me, it is the eleventh hour, and the end of the world comes to the harvest, and angels, armed and prepared, hold sickles in their hands, awaiting the empire of the Lord.
And we think that the earth exists with blind infidelity, arriving at its downfall early. Commotions are brought forth, wars of diverse peoples and battles and incursions of the barbarians threaten, and our regions shall be desolated, and we neither become very much afraid of the report nor of the 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!
Ephraim believed that all Christians should know that the Day of the Lord approached and should be able to recognize the signs of the times. He also clearly linked to Old Testament Day of the Lord with the New Testament forthcoming Great Tribulation.
This is just a flavor of early church teaching. Each and every church father, where their writings exists, testify to a belief in a Rapture of the church. Each of these fathers all place this Rapture of the church before the Day of the Lord, or the Great Tribulation.
These writings on their own do not prove the existence of a Pre-Tribulation Rapture, nor can they be regarded in any way as authoritative as Scripture. They do, however, clearly demonstrate that the teaching of a Pre-Tribulation Rapture is not a “modern invention” that supposedly began in the 1800s.
What their writings also prove, without doubt, is that the teaching of the Pre-Tribulation Rapture has been a part of Christian beliefs since the earliest days of the Apostles.
Jesus is coming soon…
“Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also” (John 14:1-3).
“For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:9).