The modern aversion to the rapture doctrine, particularly by those who hold the view called preterism (the belief that most if not all prophecies were fulfilled in 70 A.D. when Titus destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem) is often based on the faulty assertion that the teaching is a later invention by the Plymouth Brethren teacher J.N. Darby (1800-1882), and promoted by the dispensationalist teacher C.I. Scofield (1843-1921).
Below will be citations of an earlier belief in the doctrine of a pre-tribulation rapture as based on Biblical teachings such as the Apostle Paul’s prophecies (1 Thess 4:13-18; 1Cor 15:51-54), and those of others, such as the Apostle John’s quoting of Jesus promising to return for His own, so that they will be with Him where He is (Jn 14:1-3), etc. Of course Scripture is our final authority as to this revealed truth, but these extra-Biblical citations will show an earlier historicity for the pre-tribulation doctrine as understood by early Christianity.
Not all who are quoted here had a firm grasp as to the length of the ‘tribulation period’, as we understand it today as 7 years in duration per Daniel’s 70th week (see Dan 9:24-27). So, while we may misread them as teaching a ‘mid-tribulation’ rapture, they may have simply understood the entirety of the tribulation period as being 3 1/2 years. This is understandable as the 7 year period we call ‘the tribulation’ is not strictly called such in Scripture. However, the second half is called ‘the Great Tribulation’. Regardless, their view of a rapture is clearly pre-tribulation as they understood it.
Revelation is progressive, in that what was revealed may have been only partially understood by them of the first centuries. Eschatology is no exception.
Again, certain revealed truths can be abandoned and recovered again in later generations, the gifts of the Spirit, as understood within Charismatic and Pentecostal circles, are an example of this. The same is true of how the first century Church viewed the parousia (coming presence) of the Lord, and how it is a restored doctrine today.
Christ intentionally taught the Church as to the imminence of His parousia, but because of the allegorizing of Scripture within Alexandrian and Augustinian Christianity, this belief and expectancy in the imminence of the Lord’s return was eroded.
The belief that the rapture is only a recent doctrine brought about by Margaret MacDonald (1815-1840), and was from which J.N. Darby derived his pre-tribulationism has been proven untenable by most scholars, namely due to Darby’s deeming that her ‘proto-Pentecostal’ experiences were demonic, it is highly unlikely that he would have borrowed anything from her. Rather, Darby’s beliefs on a pre-tribulation rapture were due to his own Bible studying.
Textual evidence for a pre-Darby pre-tribulationism:
1. “The last stumbling block is at hand, concerning which the Scriptures speak, as Enoch says. For the Master has cut short the times and the days for this reason, that his beloved might make haste and come into his inheritance. And so also speaks the prophet: ‘Ten Kingdoms will reign over the earth, and after them a little king will arise, who will subdue three of the kings with a single blow.’ Similarly Daniel says, concerning the same one: ‘And I saw the fourth beast, wicked and powerful and more dangerous than all the beasts of the earth, and how then horns sprang up from it, and from these a little offshoot of a horn, and how it subdued three of the large horns with a single blow.’ ”
~ Epistle of Barnabas (70 – 131 A.D.)
2. “Watch over your life: ‘do not let your lamps go out, and do not be unprepared, but be ready, for you do not know the hour when our Lord is coming.’
Gather together frequently, seeking the things that benefit your souls, for all the time you have believed will be of no use to you if you are not found perfect in the last time.
For in the last days the false prophets and corruptors [of the faith] will abound, and the sheep will be turned into wolves, and love will be turned into hate.
For as lawlessness increases, they will hate, persecute, and betray one another. Then the deceiver of the world will appear as a son of God and will ‘perform signs and wonders’, and the earth will be delivered into his hands, and he will commit abominations the likes of which have never happened before.
Then all humankind will come to the fiery test, and ‘many will fall away’ and perish; but ‘those who endure’ in their faith ‘will be saved’…
And ‘then there will appear the signs’ of the truth: first the sign of an opening in heaven, then the sign of the sound of a trumpet, and third, the resurrection of the dead- but not of all; rather, as it has been said, ‘The Lord will come, and all his saints with him.’
Then the world ‘will see the Lord coming upon the clouds of heaven.’ “
~ The Didache 16:1-8, (late 1st century).
3. “The Fourth vision which I saw, brethren, twenty days after the former vision which came unto me, for a type of the impending tribulation… And as I gave glory and thanksgiving to Him, there answered me as it were the sound of a voice, ‘Be not of doubtful mind, Hermas.’ I began to question in myself and to say, ‘How can I be of doubtful mind, seeing that I am so firmly founded by the Lord, and have seen glorious things?’ And I went on a little, brethren, and behold I see a cloud of dust rising as it were to heaven, and I began to say within myself, ‘Can it be that cattle are coming, and raising a cloud of dust?’ for it was just about a stade from me. As the cloud of dust waxed greater and greater, I suspected that it was something supernatural. Then the sun shone out a little, and behold, I see a huge beast like a seamonster, and from its mouth fiery locusts issued forth. And the beast was about a hundred feet in length, and its head was as it were of pottery. And I began to weep, and to entreat the Lord that He would rescue me from it. And I remembered the word which I had heard, ‘Be not of doubtful mind, Hermas.’ Having therefore, brethren, put on the faith of the Lord and called to mind the mighty works that He had taught me, I took courage and gave myself up to the beast. Now the beast was coming on with such a rush, that it might have ruined a city. I come near it, and, huge monster as it was, it stretcheth itself on the ground, and merely put forth its tongue, and stirred not at all until I had passed by it… Now after I had passed the beast, and had gone forward about thirty feet, behold, there meeteth me a virgin arrayed as if she were going forth from a bride-chamber, all in white and with white sandals, veiled up to her forehead, and here head-covering consisted of a turban, and here hair was white. I knew from the former visions that it was the Church, and I became more cheerful. She saluteth me, saying, ‘Good morrow, my good man’; and I saluted her in turn, ‘Lady, good morrow.’ She answered and said unto me, ‘Did nothing meet the?’ I say unto her, ‘Lady, such a huge beast, that could have destroyed whole peoples: but, by the power of the Lord and by His great mercy, I escaped it.’ ‘Thou did escape it well,’ saith she, ‘because thou didst cast thy care upon God, and didst open thy heart to the Lord, believing that thou canst be saved by nothing else but by His great and glorious Name. Therefore the Lord sent His angel, which is over the beasts, whose name is Segri, and shut its mouth, that it might not hurt thee. 4 Thou hast escaped a great tribulation by reason of thy faith, and because, though thou sawest so huge a beast, thou didst not doubt in thy mind. 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 you 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… Wherefore cease not thou to speak in the ears of the saints. Ye have now the symbolism also of the tribulation which is coming in power. But if ye be willing, it shall be nought.”
~ The Shepherd of Hermas IV.1-3, (90-140 A.D.).
4. “Of a truth, soon and suddenly shall His will be accomplished, as the Scripture also bears witness, saying, ‘Speedily will He come, and will not tarry’; and, ‘The Lord shall suddenly come to His temple, even the Holy One, for whom ye look’… Let us consider, beloved, how the Lord continually proves to us that there shall be a future resurrection, of which He has rendered the Lord Jesus Christ the firstfruits by raising Him from the dead.”
“Let us therefore strive to be found in the number of those that wait for Him, in order that we may share in His promised gifts.”
~ Clement of Rome (95-96 A.D.), 1Clement 23:5; 24:1; 35:4 [and these follow previous chapters where Enoch, Noah, Lot and Rahab are examples of God’s saving deliverance].
5. “And therefore, when in the end the Church shall be suddenly caught up [Gk. harpadzo, the very same word used in 1Thess 4:17, and translated into Latin as rapiemur, and from there into English as ‘rapture’] 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.”
~ Irenaeus (180 A.D.) a disciple of Polycarp, who was in turn a disciple of the apostle John, Against Heresies 5:29.
6. “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.”
~ Cyprian (258 A.D.), Treatise of Cyprian.
7. “We ought to understand thoroughly therefore, my brothers, what is imminent or overhanging. . . . Why therefore do we not reject every care of earthly actions and prepare ourselves for the meeting of the Lord Jesus Christ, so that he may draw us from the confusion, which overwhelms all the world? . . . For all the saints and elect of God are gathered together before the tribulation, which is 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.”
~ Pseudo-Ephraem, (7th century), Sermon at the End of the World.
1. In the Epistle of Barnabas, the citing of Enoch is important, as he was translated prior to the Flood. Also, that the making haste, so that His beloved may come into his inheritance, is mentioned as prior to the discussion of the coming Antichrist’s ‘beast-kingdom’.
2. Imminence and preparedness, themes emphasized by the Lord Himself in reference to His own return for the Church, are brought up in the Didache. Not being found perfect (complete) is of concern, as His coming will be sudden. Note too, that the coming of the Lord is mentioned here prior to discussing the sudden appearance of the Antichrist as a ‘Son of God’.
3. Again, in the order of the ‘signs of truth’ here in the Didache, we see two comings:
1) The opening in heaven, the sound of a trumpet (as in 1Thess 4:16-18; 1Cor 15:51-55), and the resurrection of the dead- but not of all (!). And why?
2) Because the world, who’ve not yet been resurrected, will then see the Lord coming- and all His saints with Him.
4. In the Shepherd of Hermas we see that Hermas passing safely by the beast from the sea (Rev 13), which was a vision as to the impending tribulation, is an escaping. Note that the beast ‘stirred not at all until I had passed it’, meaning that the coming beast-kingdom will not fully arise until the Church passes by it via the escape of the rapture.
5. Hermas’ meeting the Church, who appeared as a woman coming from the bridal chamber, is a reference to the Church having already met the Lord her Bridegroom.
6. Hermas escaped the coming beast thusly, ‘…by the power of the Lord and by His great mercy, I escaped it.’ Resurrection (and that is the rapture) is conjoined with power in Scripture (Rom 1:4; Phil 3:10). He was also told, ‘Thou hast escaped a great tribulation by reason of thy faith’.
7. In 1Clement we still see the imminence and suddenness of the Lord’s return as a prominent teaching. Indeed, over many chapters the flow of thought takes us through multiple examples of those who were delivered from impending doom or judgment prior to that destruction’s arrival: Enoch, Noah, Lot and Rahab.
8. In Irenaeus’s quote, he uses the very same Greek word, ‘harpadzo’, that through the Latin rapiemur translates again as rapture in English.
9. Immediately following Irenaeus’ statement about the Church being suddenly caught up, he mentions unparalleled tribulation in agreement with Jesus’ Olivet Discourse (Mt 24:21). And though it may seem that the righteous go through it (last contest of the righteous), how it’s worded, but if we take it in context, the rapture preceding the tribulation, the righteous overcome precisely because they bypass what is to come.
10. Cyprian of course mentions an early and quick departure, you are taken away from the imminent disasters and shipwrecks to come…
11. Our assigned homes that Cyprian says that we are ‘snatched to’, escaping the snares of the world, are the heavenly mansions (Gk. abodes) that Christ promised He’d take us to when He returned specifically to take us to where He is (Jn 14:1-3).
12. In Pseudo-Ephraem, it cannot be more clear as to the continued message of imminence that the Lord Himself taught in the Olivet Discourse and elsewhere, and that this should birth within us a careful preparation to abandon this world and its pull. And that this return means for us a drawing, a gathering, before the tribulation-and a being taken to the Lord, so that we might not see that which is soon to overwhelm the world.