Early Church Beliefs

And How Pretribulation Beliefs Started

Those whom the apostles personally instructed, and those taught in turn by them, were most likely to know and adhere to the original teachings.

Justin Martyr (100 to 167 A.D.) lived near the time of the apostle John (died 100 A.D.); Justin taught the resurrection and rapture of believers would occur at the beginning of the millennium (Christ’s 1000-year reign, which starts just after the Second Coming). Justin also wrote, “the man of apostasy [Antichrist] …shall venture to do unlawful deeds on earth against us the Christians“. Therefore, Christians would be on earth during the tribulation.

Irenaeus (130 to 200 A.D.) who said he held the actual apostles’ teaching, wrote, “they [the ten kings of Rev. 17:1-13] shall …give their kingdom to the beast [Antichrist], and put the Church to flight“. Irenaeus also said : “but he [John] indicates the number of the name [666 of Antichrist] now, that when this man comes we may avoid him, being aware who he is“. Teaching us what to avoid because Christians will still be on earth during the tribulation.

Tertullian (150 to 220 A.D.) attached the rapture of 1 Thessalonians 4, to the start of Christ’s millennial kingdom on earth. Tertullian said the tribulation situation will be such “that the beast Antichrist with his false prophet may wage war on the Church of God“. The Church still on earth during the tribulation.

Cyprian (200 to 260 A.D.) writes, “Nor let any of you, beloved brethren, be terrified by the fear of future persecution, by the coming of the threatening Antichrist“. And we do well to take Cyprian’s advice, since the Lord’s grace is sufficient for true believers to be victorious in any situation. Cyprian taught of persecution of Christians on earth by the antichrist during the tribulation.

Pseudo-Ephraem (perhaps 400 or 600 A.D.) was a man who “borrowed” materials from the real Ephraem of Syria, —and some pre-tribulationists have taken several sentences out of context, in an attempt to say that there was an early date for the pre-tribulation rapture teaching. The main two sentences of Pseudo-Ephraem which are quoted, state : “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 all the world? … 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 ever see the confusion that is to overwhelm the world because of our sins.” —Note, that these quoted sentences do not mention a coming of the Lord, or a resurrection of the dead or a glorification (translation) or a heavenly destination of believers. However, in a very solid and thorough analysis of the writings of both pseudo and real Ephraem, Dr. Robert Gundry (in his book, “First the Antichrist”, ’97, Baker, p.161-188) concludes that in reality, “Pseudo-Ephraem urges Christians to forsake worldliness in preparation for meeting Christ when he returns after the great tribulation. Meanwhile, Christian evangelism is taking people to the Lord and gathering them into the Church. … This interpretation takes account of Pseudo-Ephraem’s leaving the corpses of Christians unburied during the tribulation, putting the resurrection of Christians and their meeting Christ at his coming after the tribulation to destroy the Antichrist, making imminent the advent of Antichrist rather than that of Christ, and utilizing the plainly and heavily post-trib tradition of true Ephraem, who repeatedly portrayed present-day evangelism as a gathering“.

Outstanding Bible Teachers in subsequent generations of Church history, who taught that the Church would encounter the persecution of the Antichrist here on earth before the Second Coming, include : John Calvin, Martin Luther, John Knox, John Bunyan, Isaac Newton, George Whitefield, Charles Spurgeon, Charles Hodge, Henry Alford, J.Sidlow Baxter, F.F. Bruce, Thomas Chalmers, Adam Clarke, Jonathan Edwards, Jim Elliott, W.J. Erdman, Robert Gundry, Carl F. Henry, Matthew Henry, John Huss, Orson Jones, C.S. Lovett, J.Gresham Machen, Peter Marshall, Walter Martin, Gary Matsdorf, G.Campbell Morgan, Leon Morris, George Mueller, Ian Murray, B.W. Newton, John Newton, H.J. Ockenga, Bernard Ramm, Alexander Reese, A. Saphir, Demos Shakarian, A.B. Simpson, Oswald J. Smith, Jim Spillman, R.C. Sproul, Charles Spurgeon, Corrie TenBoom, S.P. Tragelles, William Tyndale, B.B. Warfield, Charles Wesley, R.F. Youngblood, and premillennial posttribulationists also include : Bengel, Brooks, Cameron, Delitzsch, Derstine, DeWette, Ellicott, Ewald, Frost, Godet, Godwin, Joyner, Kellogg, Moorehead, Orelli, Robertson, Rothe, Ryle, Spener, Stier, Trench, Volck, Van Ostersee, West, Whiston, Zahn, and many more.

In looking at the whole history of the Christian Church, the overwhelming majority of great Bible-teachers have believed that the Church would encounter Antichrist, and that the rapture and the Second Coming would happen at the same time after the tribulation. But still, any teaching should stand or fall, not because of its antiquity, or a majority believing it, but as it lines up with the truth of the Scriptures.

Not only did the early Church teach that the Church would face Antichrist, and that Christ would return at the beginning of the Millennium, but in all of Church history, there is never an actual pre-tribulation rapture teaching, until 1830s AD.

During the Protestant Reformation Martin Luther, John Calvin and others believed the Pope was the antichrist so, they separated themselves from the Catholic church. The papacy, of course, didn’t like what was going on so they had the Jesuit Priests come up with a theory to draw Christians away from this belief. Francisco Ribera, a Jesuit Priest (1537-1591) published an Apocalyptic Commentary [Apocalypsin] about 1585 AD which was known as the futurist theory [1]. Meaning the prophecy of the antichrist is for some time in the future and not their present day.

Dr. S.R. Maintland (1752-1866), librarian to the Archbishop of Canterbury, discovered Ribera’s book in his library and published it in 1826. Dr. Maintland also wrote a prophetic pamphlet showing his contempt for the Reformation, and he did not believe that the papacy was the predicted antichrist.

John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), distinguished for his successful ministry among the Roman Catholic peasants of his parish in Calary, read the pamphlets that Maitland produced and was persuaded. Darby was the founder of the Plymouth Brethren. He thought this was a “great revelation” with such a simplified view of Bible prophecy, there was no need to understand the historic application since it was all in the future. It was Darby who introduced this new teaching into the main current of prophetic interpretation. Darby wrote several volumes on this new understanding of prophecy. He influenced many people, including Cyrus Ingerson Scofield (1843-1921) who incorporated Darby’s views in the Scofield Reference Bible in 1909. Scofield was awarded an honorary Ph.D., but he didn’t earn it.

Emmanuel Lacunza (1731-1801), a Jesuit priest from Chili, contains what some say is the first known reference to the, at that time, new idea of a “rapture”. His book was published in Spain and then translated into English and published in London in 1827. The book was attributed to a fictitious author named Rabbi Juan Josafat Ben-Ezra. In an extensive introduction the translator, Rev. Edward Irving (1792-1834) contended that the book was the work of a converted Jew.Knowing that he was giving a false position on the Second Coming of Christ and the resurrection of the dead, he presented Lacunza’s work as a new revelation from God. Irving became one of the most eloquent preachers of his time. In 1828 his open-air meetings in Scotland drew crowds of ten thousand people. In March 1830, he held a series of prophecy meetings in which he introduced Lacunza’s ideas.[2]

In 1830 in Port Glasgow, Scotland, a 15-year-old named Margaret MacDonald claimed she had received a new revelation in a vision, then set about to share this vision of a pre-tribulation rapture with anyone who would listen. Beginning in 1826 and through 1829, a few preachers in Scotland emphasized that the world’s problems could only be addressed through an outbreak of supernatural gifts from the Holy Spirit. In response, Isabella and Mary Campbell of the parish of Rosneath manifested charismatic experiences such as speaking in tongues. Around 1830, miraculous healings were reported through James Campbell, first of his sister Margaret MacDonald and then of Mary Campbell (through James’ letter to Mary). Shortly thereafter James and George MacDonald manifested the speaking and interpretations of tongues, and soon others followed suit in prayer meetings. These charismatic experiences garnered major national attention. Many came to see and investigate these events. Some, such as Edward Irving and Henry Drummond, regarded these events as genuine displays from the Holy Spirit. Others, including John Darby and Benjamin Newton whom the Brethren sent on their behalf to investigate, came to the conclusion that these displays were demonic[3]. Robert Norton (1807-1883), who recorded Margaret’s prophecies and published them in a book, “Memoirs” [1840] and then another book “The Restoration of Apostles and Prophets” [1861]. Norton wrote that Miss MacDonald was the first to advance the idea of pre-tribulation rapture. You can read Margaret MacDonald’s vision as published in Norton’s “Memiors” here: http://onlyonereturn.yolasite.com/macdonald.php

The rapture doctrine of today is quite different from the fragments of the rapture theory of Lacunza, MacDonald and Norton. They proclaimed a partial rapture in which only a select portion of the body of believers would be chosen. The identity of this elite, select portion quickly became a focal point of confusion and disagreement. Lacunza claimed that only those believers who partake of the sacrament of the Eucharist would be raptured; Miss MacDonald said the rapture would take away only those who were filled with the Spirit; and Norton claimed that only Christians who were sealed by the Holy Ghost with the laying on of hands would be raptured.

The pretrib theory originated from the Catholic church for fear of looking like the bad guy and it spiraled from there.

[1] Encyclopedia Britannica 11th Edition Vol. 23
[2] Michael J. Berry, Foundation for Restoration, p. 63-4
[3] Wikipedia

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