Did the Early Church Fathers Believe in a Pretribulational Rapture?
UPDATE: I look back at this old paper and find some good arguments but, as I concluded, there is no smoking gun for the belief in a pretribulation Rapture among the early church fathers. I am more compelled now to say why: No, the early church fathers did not believe in a pre-tribulation Rapture, at least in the way Darby and dispensationalists ever since the 1800s have held it. They didn't believe it because the Bible didn't teach it--and they were much closer in time and place to the biblical authors. What Scripture actually says has always been the standard to which we evangelical Christians have always claimed to hold. I hope to write more soon, but I think the "Pre-Wrath" Rapture--the idea that the church goes through part, if not most, of the seven-year tribulation--has much greater biblical merit.
Did the Early Church Fathers Believe in a Pretribulational Rapture? (original article follows):
According to Ladd, “We can find no trace of pretribulationism in the early church; and no modern pretribulationist has successfully proved that this particular doctrine was held by any of the church fathers or students of the Word before the nineteenth century.” Ladd is unequivocal, but is he correct? This paper will examine the eschatological views of the early church fathers, from the disciples of the apostles themselves to about 300 A.D., showing that not only were they overwhelmingly premillennialists but that their eschatological understandings support the possibility of a pretribulation rapture.
This paper will pay particular attention to the writings of the second and third-century church fathers and to Christian writings of their time. To be sure, such early eschatology does not demonstrate the depth of development of modern theologies. However, an examination will show that, where eschatological writings by the second-century church fathers exist, it can be shown that they overwhelmingly support the idea of Jesus’ imminent and unexpected return for the church. Further examination will show that many in the early church did understand the rapture not as sending the church as a welcoming delegation to meet Christ but as Christ’s rescue mission to save the church from the wrath of God poured out in the Great Tribulation.
As the Apostle John is widely considered the writer of The Revelation, any extra-biblical insight into what his students believed about the end times could prove most helpful. As John was the apostle held to have lived to the latest date, the writings of numerous of his disciples (and, in turn, of their disciples) bear witness to John’s spiritual heritage. As the Apostle Paul penned some of the key passages of Scripture relating directly to the rapture itself, any church fathers connected to him might also shine greater light on how exactly the early church understood the rapture and its timing. It seems likely that Clement of Rome was personally familiar with at least one of the apostles; Eusebius testifies that Clement of Rome was the same man to whom the Apostle Paul referred as a “fellow worker” (Phil 4:3). If such a record exists, Clement’s understanding of Paul’s eschatology—particularly, Pauline rapture-specific passages (1 Thess 4:16-17. 1 Cor 15:50-52) would shed further light on how the early church understood Paul’s teachings on the rapture itself.
Most likely, and unsurprisingly, the early church fathers simply would not have described a belief in the pretribulation rapture using the same sort of descriptive language as premillennial dispensationalists today. However, a study of patristics easily shows that, from the beginning, the church subscribed to the two essential ingredients of the pretribulation rapture—namely, premillennialism and imminence. It was only the likes of Origen—and later Augustine—who abandoned a historical-grammatical hermeneutic and banished both premillennialism and imminence from the church’s teachings, not to see a resurgence until after the Reformation.
Premillennialism of the Early Church Fathers
Premillennialism is an important facet of rapture teaching. Not all premillennialists are pretribulationists, but indeed all who subscribe to a pretribulation rapture also affirm premillennialism. If the early church fathers did not subscribe to an essentially premillennial eschatology, then they certainly wouldn’t have subscribed to a pretribulation rapture.
It seems logical to think writings of Papias, Polycarp, and Ignatius—who seem to have been John’s disciples—could provide insight into the Revelator’s eschatological understanding? Moreover, John’s teachings directly influenced Justin Martyr, Irenaeus (a disciple of Polycarp), Tertullian, Apollinaris, and Melito, all of whom were both geographically and historically close to the apostle. Crutchfield argues that not only were John and his spiritual progeny in Asia Minor premillennial in their eschatological expectations, but that they were the very source of the premillennial tradition, or “chiliasm,” as it was known in the early church.
Papias, Polycarp, Ignatius, and Clement of Rome were contemporaries. Papias, bishop of Hierapolis, whom Irenaeus describes as a hearer of John and a companion of Polycarp, has earned the title “father of Millenarianism.” Only a few fragments of Papias’ writings are extant, and one does mention heaven and what seems to be a restored earth, but it is difficult from these writings to affirm his millennial views. Rather, Papias is assumed a premillennialist primarily because Jerome and the anti-millenarian, Eusebius, both affirmed his chiliastic views.
Crutchfield admits there is little extant work by either Polycarp or Ignatius to establish their eschatological views. Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, was said by Tertullian to have been installed by the Apostle John himself. Other than his association with John and the testimony of Polycarp’s disciple, Irenaeus, there is little to associate him with premillennialism. Only one of Polycarp’s epistles—to the Philippians—survives, and with only one verse addressing the eschaton. Polycarp’s Philippians 5:2, he speaks of Christ, “to whom, if we are pleasing in the present age, we shall also obtain the age to come, inasmuch as he promised to raise us from the dead. And if we bear our citizenship worthy of him, ‘we shall also reign with him’—provided, of course, that we have faith.” Polycarp’s own writing is not a strong statement of premillennial belief, however, neither do Polycarp’s words preclude the premillennial doctrine.
McGinn sees no evidence that such early fathers as Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch were premillennial in their eschatology, let alone that they subscribed to a pretribulation rapture. House disagrees, arguing that both Clement and Ignatius held distinctly premillennial eschatological views. So too, House says, did the second and third-century fathers Justin Martyr, Tatian, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Tertullian, Cyprian, and Lactantius.
Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, seems to have contact with both the Apostle Peter and the Apostle John. While many have ascribed premillennial views to him, such an assertion is hard to prove based only on Ignatius’s own letters. In his letter to the Ephesians (11:1), Ignatius says, “The last days are here.” In his epistle to Smyrna (3:1), Ignatius writes, “For myself, I am convinced and believe that even after the resurrection he was in the flesh.” In the longer version of the letter to Smyrna, Ignatius says he believes that Jesus will come in the body “at the end of the world.” In a letter to Polycarp (3:2), Ignatius exhorts the bishop of Smyrna to “Mark the times. Be on the alert for him who is above time, the Timeless, the Unseen, the One who became visible for our sakes…” Generally, most of Ignatius’s letters are largely pastoral in nature. Ignatius seems to reflect strong Pauline influence, including a Pauline—not Johannine—eschatology. Ignatius seems not to preclude premillennialism, but neither does he provide clear teaching of the doctrine, much less an unequivocal affirmation.
Clement’s writings give no real support to the idea that he held to premillennialism. House cites the sermon Second Clement 12:1 (“Loving and doing what is right, we must be on the watch for God’s Kingdom hour by hour, since we do not know the day when God will appear.”) as proof of Clement’s premillennialism. This is not only a fairly weak argument for chiliasm, but few scholars actually believe Clement of Rome actually wrote 2 Clement. Moreover, nothing in Clement’s extant letter (the so-called 1 Clement) shines further light on Paul’s eschatological views, as one might hope from the writings of a purported companion of Paul.
In his Dialogue with Trypho, it is clear that Justin Martyr held to the doctrine of a literal return of Christ to rule and reign for a millennium. Justin replies in the affirmative when Trypho asks whether he truly believes Jerusalem will be rebuilt, with Christians gathered together with the messiah, the patriarchs, and the prophets. Still, Justin admits to Trypho there are sincere, “right-minded Christians” who believe otherwise.  The premillennial consensus among the early church fathers was wide, but Justin shows it was far from unanimous.
Irenaeus, a student of Polycarp who was also influenced by Justin Martyr, demonstrates what Smith would argue is a rather non-traditional form of chiliasm. In Against Heresies, Irenaeus sees his eschatology in terms of the seven days of Creation. Creation would last six thousand years, at the end of which, Christ would return for a “Sabbath millennium,” ruling a paradisiacal earth, after which an eternal “eighth millennium” would occur.
McGinn further sees no support for premillennialism in the Didache. However, in its sixteenth and final chapter, this early Christian work clearly teaches the imminent return of Christ. As the didachist wrote, “let your lamps not be quenched and your loins not ungirded, but be ye ready; for ye know not the hour in which our Lord cometh.” Further, the idea that the living believers are saved from God’s wrath seems clear in the last chapter of the Didache, though not from the offenses of “the world-deceiver,” the anti-Christ himself. Christ returns to save the believing remnant:
“(B)ut they that endure in their faith shall be saved by the Curse Himself. And then shall the signs of the truth appear; first a sign of a rift in the heaven, then a sign of a voice of a trumpet, and thirdly a resurrection of the dead; yet not of all, but as it was said: The Lord shall come and all His saints with Him. Then shall the world see the Lord coming upon the clouds of heaven.”
Some have argued that here the Didache suggests the early church held to an “imminent post-tribulation” view, quite apart from a modern pretribulational view. Crutchfield argues that persecution and false teachers were already threats to the church. Whether the Anti-Christ was the Roman emperor at the time of the Didache’s composition, or some later ruler, the didachist could not say. Thus, on a practical level, the church should always remain ready for the imminent return of the Lord. Likewise, the Epistle of Barnabas seems to come from the same tradition as the Didache. Crutchfield sees the writer of Barnabas as incorrectly attempting to reinterpret the Old Testament in an allegorical fashion and erroneously ascribing to the church all of God’s promises for Israel. However, Barnabas clearly sees a millennial reign of Christ as part of the same 7,000-year timeline to which Irenaeus subscribed.
Overall, the weight of the available evidence concurs with Schaff’s assessment: “The most striking point in the eschatology of the Ante-Nicene age is the prominent chiliasm or millenarianism, that is the belief of a visible reign of Christ in glory on earth with the risen saints for a thousand years, before the general resurrection and judgment.” Schaff admits that while premillennialism was never creedally codified, it was the prevailing opinion among the earliest church fathers, including Papias, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Methodius, Lactantius, and the writer of the Epistle of Barnabas.
Doctrine of Imminence
Walvoord argues that a central feature of the pretribulation rapture is imminence—the notion that Christ’s return could occur at any time. Those who argue for the imminency of the rapture make their case from several Scriptures. The New Testament promises Jesus will return come as a thief in the night (Matt 24:43; 1 Thess 5:2-4; 2 Ptr 3:10; Rev 16:15). Jesus promises that he will come quickly (Rev 22:12). Like pretribulationalists today, the early church believed in the imminence of the Lord’s return. However, admits Foster, “This apparent expectation of the early Church fathers must be balanced by a general expectation that the coming of Christ would be sudden, unexpected, and unpredictable. This poses an eschatological tension in the early Church, which was not resolved because of their preoccupation with other doctrinal questions.” The early church held to the imminent return of Christ, but again, more pressing doctrinal issues in soteriology and Christology demanded the attention of the church leaders.
If Clement and Ignatius had little to say that would directly support premillennialism, Walvoord definitely sees imminence in their writings, particularly in 1 Clement, where the bishop of Rome writes:
“Take a vine: first it sheds its leaves, then comes a bud, then a leaf, then a flower, and after this a sour grape, and finally a ripe bunch. You note that the fruit of the tree reaches its maturity in a short time. So, to be sure, swiftly and suddenly his purpose will be accomplished, just as Scripture, too, testifies: ‘Quickly he will come and not delay, and the Lord will come suddenly into his temple, even the Holy One whom you expect.’”
The Ignatian epistles to Ephesians and Polycarp, already examined in the discussion of premillennialism, do show that the bishop of Antioch clearly believed in the doctrine of imminency. Irenaeus not only held to a premillennial doctrine but essentially supported imminency, albeit in slightly different terms from the traditional view. Irenaeus thought that at the end of the “sixth millennium,” the anti-Christ would suddenly appear, lay Babylon to waste, put the church on the run, and rule for three and a half years. Irenaeus had no idea how close at hand the end of the sixth millennium lay ahead but thought it was close enough that the return of Christ was imminent.
Walvoord also sees the patristic belief in imminency in the extra-biblical Epistle of Barnabas (c. 117-138 A.D.), which seems to have shared common sources with the Didache. The writer of The Shepherd of Hermas believed in imminency and the idea that the Lord would deliver the elect from the Great Tribulation:
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.
Gundry says that this statement actually proves the writer of Hermas is post-tribulational in nature—as are, he says, most of the patristic eschatological writings. However, it seems clear, as Lea argues, the early fathers already experienced persecution. They had no way of knowing whether the current Roman emperor or some other ruler would come as anti-Christ. For all they knew, the anti-Christ may have already been sitting on the throne.
As the years wore on, imminency became less fashionable, especially as Constantine ultimately declared Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire. Many, especially in the Alexandrian school, felt that the failure of Christ to return by this point must mean that the church had misunderstood something Jesus had said. Origen, Eusebius, and Augustine played leading roles in snuffing out the doctrines of imminency and premillennialism by the early fifth century. This was at a time when then church had not yet systemized its eschatology to the same level of clarity with which it had addressed such matters as soteriology and Christology. The extinction of premillennialism necessarily eliminated any thoughts of a pretribulation rapture. It is understandable, then, that no more formal development of the notion of a pretribulation rapture would be added to what little work had already been done. As Walvoord says, “It should be clear to any impartial observer that the early church believed in the imminent coming of the Lord, but without solving many problems related to it.”
Earliest Clear Teachings of the Pre-Tribulation Rapture
The third-century Coptic writing known as the Apocalypse of Elijah (which claims no association with the biblical Elijah) is unquestionably the earliest extant testimony of pretribulationalism as an early church belief. As Gumerlock notes, the Apocalypse comes from a chiliast group in upper Egypt, not from Gnostics. The book shows the influence of both the Old and New Testaments—particularly the Revelation and the Pauline epistles—and from the extra-biblical 1 Enoch and the Apocalypse of Peter. By chapter 5, the Apocalypse of Elijah depicts the anti-Christ as already in control and persecuting the church. The church here has experienced the wrath of anti-Christ and recognizes him as the son of lawlessness. However, the church has not experienced the wrath of God—and won’t. According to the Apocalypse of Elijah (5:2-4):
On that day, Christ will pity those who are His own. And He will send from heaven his sixty-four thousand angels, each of whom has six wings. The sound will move heaven and earth when they give praise and glorify. Now those upon whose forehead the name of Christ is written and upon whose hand is the seal, both the small and the great, will be taken up upon their wings and lifted up before his wrath.
Immediately after Christ takes up His own, the wrath of God falls on the earth. There are earthquakes, the sun is darkened, birds fall to earth dead, the waters of the sea dry up, and peace departs the earth. God judges the world and destroys the son of lawlessness. Jesus has rescued the church from the wrath of God but will later return to earth with all the saints to rule for a thousand years (5:36-37). This is, essentially, the same expectation as modern pretribulationism. Certainly, the Apocalypse of Elijah falls short of an authoritative commentary on the patristic beliefs—indeed, it actually differs from the scriptural accounts of the rapture in some key respects. However, the Apocalypse does show that the idea of Christ’s return for the church as a rescue from the anti-Christ, and from the impending wrath of God has been around far longer than Darby’s teachings.
Also worthy of mention are the writings of the so-called “Pseudo-Ephraem.” The work claims to be written by Ephraem the Syrian (A.D. 306-373), although it is likely almost two centuries more recent. Jeffrey opines that, even if the later date should be attached to the text, it almost certainly carries with it an older pretribulational tradition, as taught by Ephraem. The text clearly articulates a belief that Christ would return for His elect to rescue them from the tribulation to come. The text understands the rapture as “imminent or overhanging,” occurring without notice or warning. Ephraem (Pseudo-Ephraem) describes the pretribulation rapture, saying, “All saints and the Elect of the Lord are gathered together before the tribulation which is 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.”
To be sure, Ephraem (Pseudo-Ephraem) represents a later tradition than has been the focus of most of this paper—fourth to seventh century A.D. However, the text does clearly demonstrate that the pretribulation rapture is no invention of Darby or his like. It also demonstrates that, despite the allegorizing hermeneutic which had become predominant by the time of the Ephraem, a literal-grammatical hermeneutic survived as a small minority long after the Constantinian triumph.
To prove that any of the early church fathers believed in the modern, dispensationalist view of a pretribulation rapture, as taught by the likes of Darby and many evangelicals today, is nearly impossible. However, all available evidence shows that the early church fathers subscribed to both imminence and the physical return of Christ to reign with the saints during a thousand peaceful years on earth—the two key components to the doctrine of a pretribulation rapture. If one supposes that the pre-tribulation rapture means that the church will escape the persecution of the anti-Christ, then the early church fathers generally oppose that idea. Persecution and tribulation have always been the lot of the church, and the preponderance of church fathers who wrote on the subject expressed their beliefs that the anti-Christ would persecute the church.
However, the general persecution of the church should not be confused with the Great Tribulation, which will entail God’s calamitous wrath on the earth and all of sinful humanity. There, it certainly seems that the early church allowed for the possibility that Christ would rescue the church from the wrath of God—something perhaps supported by the fact that the church doesn’t appear in Revelation from chapter 4 until chapter 22. Scripture promises that Jesus Christ will deliver the church from the coming wrath of God (1 Thess 1:10), and the early church seemed to largely understand that. But the early church clearly expected to endure persecution—it was already their lot in life—and they understood it would get worse before Christ returned.
The simple truth is the early church just never got around to a detailed exegesis of the biblical witness on eschatology before the Constantinian triumph seemed to negate the need for it. Persecution was over, and Christianity was the religion of the empire—and Christ had not returned. Christians had seen what they regarded as clear signs of the Lord’s return—yet nothing had happened, and theologians were left to wonder what the church had misunderstood in the intervening centuries since Christ’s ascension. The ensuing medieval theology switched to allegorical interpretations of the Bible, ensuring that the pretribulation rapture—among other biblically viable doctrines—would lay dormant until sometime after the Reformation.
If pretribulationists look to the second and third-century church fathers to find a smoking gun, a clear delineation that the early church understood the end times precisely as do pretribulational, premillennial dispensationalists today, they will return empty-handed. By no means, however, does the paucity of patristic evidence regarding the pretribulation rapture mean the doctrine is not valid—especially if Scripture bears out the doctrine. Rather, the patristic evidence that is there, if less than conclusive, does not preclude the possibility of a pretribulation rapture, while, at the same time, it seems those premillennialists making the case for a post-tribulation rapture, or those arguing for some eschatological option outside of premillennialism would have a much more difficult case to make from the early church fathers—even if Gundry certainly tries to do just that.
Moreover, we should never consider the second and third-century fathers inerrant—many of them held understandings of particular biblical doctrines that the church would recognize today as in error. Christians today may accept that, with the passing of time, the church has grown a better understanding of the doctrines of the end times. The evidence for an ancient understanding of a pretribulation rapture is scant--both from the study of Scripture and the writings of the early church fathers. However, it seems clear that premillennialism is not some late invention of a mere few centuries ago, far removed from the biblical writers.
 George Eldon Ladd, The Blessed Hope: A Biblical Study of the Second Advent and the Rapture (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B Eerdmans): 51. Kindle.
 Eusebius, History of the Church (Scriptura Press, n. d.): Kindle location 1325. Many legends also say that Clement knew Peter, who installed him as Peter’s successor as Bishop of Rome. However, there exists no reliable evidence that Peter ever reached Rome, let alone served as bishop there.
 H. Wayne House, “Premillennialism in the Ante-Nicene Church,” Bibliotheca Sacra 169, no. 3 (July-September 2012), 280-1.
 Larry V. Crutchfield, “The Apostle John and Asia Minor as a Source of Premillennialism in the Early Church Fathers,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 31, no. 4 (December 1988), 411.
 Ibid, 419.
 Ibid, 421.
 Ibid, 413.
 Tertullian, “Prescriptions Against Heretics, Chapter 32,” Early Christian Writings, n.d. (accessed December 4, 2016 at http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/tertullian11.html).
 Polycarp, “The Letter of Saint Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, to the Philippians,” in The Apostolic Fathers (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2009): 127. Kindle.
 Bernard McGinn, “The Apostolic Fathers,” in Apocalyptic Thought in Early Christianity, edited by Robert J. Daly (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009): 88-9. Kindle.
 H. Wayne House, “Premillennialism in the Ante-Nicene Church,” Bibliotheca Sacra 169, no. 3 (July-September 2012), 274.
 Crutchfield, Apostle John and Asia Minor, 418.
 Ignatius, “The Letter of Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, to the Smyrnaeans,” in The Apostolic Fathers (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2009): 112. Kindle.
 Mark Galli, “Foreword,” in The Apostolic Fathers (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2009): 10. Kindle.
 Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Chapters LXXX and LXXXI. Christian Classics Ethereal Library, n.d. (Accessed December 8, 2016 at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.viii.iv.lxxix.html).
 Christopher R. Smith, “Chiliasm and Recapitulation in the Theology of Ireneus [sic],” Vigilae Chritianae 48 (1994), 315-7.
 Didache 16:2-3.
 Ibid, 16:12-17.
 Larry V. Crutchfield, “The Early Church Fathers and the Foundations of Dispensationalism,” Conservative Theological Journal 3, no. 8 (April 1999), 34.
 Ibid, 35.
 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (The Complete Eight Volumes in One) (Amazon Digital Services, n.d.): Kindle Locations 20170-4.
 Walvoord, The Rapture Question, Kindle location 525.
 William R. Foster, “Jesus May Come Today,” Grace Journal 2, no. 3 (Fall 1961), 6-7.
 Clement of Rome, “First Letter to the Corinthians, 23:4-5,” The Apostolic Fathers (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2009): 34. Kindle.
 Walvoord, The Rapture Question, Kindle location 1781.
 Irenaeus, “Against Heresies,” V, XXV, XXVI, and XXX (Wyatt North, 2012).
 Walvoord, The Rapture Question, Kindle location 1774.
 Anonymous, “The Pastor of Hermas,” The Apostolic Fathers (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2009): 189. Kindle.
 Robert H. Gundry, The Church and the Tribulation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1973): Kindle Location 2823.
 Thomas D. Lea, “A Survey of the Doctrine of the Return of Christ in the Ante-Nicene Fathers,” Journal of Evangelical Theological Society 29, no. 2 (June 1986), 165-6.
 House, 278-82.
 John F. Walvoord, The Return of the Lord (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1955): 80.
 Francis X. Gumerlock, “The Rapture in the Apocalypse of Elijah.” Bibliotheca Sacra 170, no. 680 (October 2013): 419.
 Anonymous, “The Apocalypse of Elijah,” Archive.org, n.d. (accessed December 8, 2016 at https://archive.org/details/pdfy-8kXMoCqhZarIc0pj).
 Grant R. Jeffrey, “The Pretribulation Rapture Teaching in the Early Church,” Chapter 8 in The Popular Handbook of the Rapture, edited by Tim LaHaye, Thomas Ice, and Ed Hindson (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2011): 105.
 Ibid, 108.
 Gundry, Kindle locations 2757-960
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