Updated: Jan 25, 2021
What Did Ancient Church Fathers Believe About The Rapture?
“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.
As long as I’ve been a Christian, and much longer, there has been controversy and division over eschatology -- the end times. However, in my opinion, very few bother to ask “what did the first-century church fathers believe about the Rapture? Were they pre-tribulation or post-tribulation? What did the disciples of the Apostles of Jesus Christ teach about the end times? Did they even believe in, or expect a “Rapture”? The multitude of Churches who’ve divided and separated over this one issue is a crying shame.
Since the very beginning of the Church Age, folks have been observing “wars and rumors of wars, plagues, and pestilence,” and attributed end-time significance. I can recall almost a handful of events in my own life that have sparked such speculation — even the current conditions regarding COVID-19, political turmoil, and something called the “Great Reset.”
I do hope for a “pre-tribulation rapture, which will take true believers out of harm's way. However, whichever way you land on your eschatological position, I find no reason to separate, or dis-fellowship from other believers in Christ, Jesus. The most important aspect of our Christian faith is that we are saved through the grace of God, especially the grace that allows us to have faith in Jesus’ self-sacrifice and doing the “will of the Father" as being sufficient to reconcile us with God. One thing is certain, the Church has always had an eschatological focus — with a sure hope of end-times victory over death.
Below, is an article that I came across many years ago, that takes an in-depth look into what the early Church believed about the end-times. Unfortunately, I’ve lost the links and attribution. I’ve also redacted and added a bit of my own research into the mix.
This article will present the writings of the early church fathers – from those who learned under the disciples of Jesus Christ, to the church leaders of the second and third centuries, on what in our day is known as the “Rapture" – the supernatural removal of all Christians from Earth to enter Heaven. While the writings of the first, second, and third-century Christian church fathers are not Scripture and not on par with the Bible, it is informative to see how the early church leaders interpreted Scripture in addition to what they learned directly from those closest to The Lord Jesus Christ. This article will also serve to dispel some of the common misconceptions about Rapture theology as being something invented in the 19th century by a man named John Darby.
John Darby and The Pre-Tribulation Rapture
John Darby has been incorrectly credited with “inventing” the Rapture.
All over the internet, there are many articles and videos that claim that the Rapture doctrine was “invented” in 1830 by a man named John Darby. The following is an excerpt that summarizes this theory:
“The Rapture doctrine, which was the invention of the Plymouth Brethren led by John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), has today been adopted by most Baptist, Pentecostals, Assemblies of God, and a variety of other fundamentalist sects. The idea that Jesus Christ will return for His true Church just before the beginning of the Great Tribulation in a secret gathering or 'catching away' was an important part of Darby’s teaching. The movement in which this teaching began originated in small groups in England and Ireland about 1828 and by 1831 was part of the official teaching of the Plymouth Brethren. By 1860 the ‘rapture' had made its way to the United States."
Today, prophecy pundits and “end-time” revivalists preach the Rapture as if it were established dogma from the time of Christ until the present. The truth is that the first historical reference to the Rapture doctrine comes from the Plymouth Brethren. Not only is the Rapture not found in the teachings of the Church, but even “end-time” heretics throughout the centuries never dreamed of proposing such a novel idea. For example, the 4th century Montanists, who preached both pre-millennialism and that they knew when Christ would return, never ventured so far as to create another 2nd coming of the Lord in a secret rapture.
In all the writings of the Scriptures, the Early Fathers, and the Ecumenical Councils, there is no mention of two 2nd comings of Christ.” (source) [Emphasis added].
In short, the objection is that rather than being a real part of the Bible, the entire idea of a pre-Great Tribulation Rapture was just an invention by Darby, and “not even heretics” ever used it. This is very strong language, but is it true? Were there no ancient Christian writings about the church being Raptured before the Great Tribulation? An examination of early church writings shows that this charge is false and there were some church fathers who indeed wrote about the Rapture.
Irenaeus (130 A.D. – 202 AD) was a bishop of the church in Lyons, France. He was an eyewitness to the Apostle John (who wrote the Book of Revelation) and a disciple of Polycarp, the first of the Apostle John’s disciples. Irenaeus is most-known for his five-volume treatise, Against Heresies in which he exposed the false religions and cults of his day along with advice for how to share the Gospel with those who were a part of them.
In his writings on Bible prophecy, he acknowledged the phrase “a time, times and dividing of times” in Daniel 7 to signify the 3 ½ 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 the resurrection of the just.
On the subject of the Rapture, in Against Heresies 5.29, he wrote:
“Those nations, however, who did not of themselves raise up their eyes unto heaven, nor returned thanks to their Maker, nor wished to behold the light of truth, but who were like blind mice concealed in the depths of ignorance, the word justly reckons “as wastewater from a sink, and as the turning-weight of a balance — in fact, as nothing;”(1) so far useful and serviceable to the just, as stubble conduces towards the growth of the wheat, and its straw, by means of combustion, serves for working gold. 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.”(2) For this is the last contest of the righteous, in which, when they overcome they are crowned with incorruption.”
Irenaeus in this passage describes the church leaving the sinful world just before unprecedented disasters. Note his use of the term “caught up” which is Rapture terminology as that is the meaning of harpazo, the term for “caught up” in the King James Bible describing the Rapture in 1 Thessalonians 4. He then quotes Matthew 24:21 where The Lord Jesus Christ says: “For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be.” And it is during this time that those who convert to Christianity during the final years will receive the incorruptible crown mentioned by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:25. In Irenaeus’ belief, the Rapture took place prior to the end times Great Tribulation.
Cyprian (200 AD – 258 AD) – Cyprian was Bishop of the church in Carthage. During his short stint as leader of the church, he guided the flock through intense persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire. In 258 AD after spending seven months of confinement to his home by order of Roman authorities, he was beheaded for his faith. Several of his works still exist today.
In Treatises of Cyprian he wrote in describing the end times Great Tribulation:
“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.”
Again we see the use of language commonly found in reference to the Rapture as Cyprian describes the judgments of the end times as “imminent.” And he makes his belief on the timing of the Rapture when he wrote that Christians will have an “early departure” and be “delivered” from the devastating global judgments that come during the Day of The Lord.
In line with the Apostle Paul who wrote that “God has not appointed us to wrath, but salvation..” Cyprian expressed joy and encourages the believing reader to rejoice that the Church will be “taken away” before the disastrous Great Tribulation. Just as The Lord Jesus Christ in Matthew 24 used the same language of one “taken away” and the other “left.” Additionally, Cyprian references the mansions which The Lord Jesus Christ promises to come back and take His believers to in John 14.
“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.
The Biblical Timing of The Rapture”, in both the Matthew 24 passages (“one taken, the other left”) and in John 14 (“..receive you unto myself..”) the Greek word paralambanō is used for taken and receive. The meaning of that word is “join to one’s self” indicating that Jesus is coming to fully unify with His church – which takes place at the Rapture. Clearly, Cyprian believed and taught that the Rapture takes place before the Great Tribulation.
Ephraim The Syrian
Ephraim (306 AD – 373 AD) was made a deacon in the church in Syria in 338 and later became the bishop of Nisibis. Although he was made a “saint” in the Roman Catholic Church, he was not involved in Catholicism and did not even live in the Roman Empire until the final years of his life. The book Pseudo Ephraim was one of his still existing works. It was called “Pseudo” because of later disputes over authorship. However, the book’s one reference to the rapture is very compelling:
In his work, On The Last Times, he wrote:
“We ought to understand thoroughly therefore, my brothers, what is imminent or overhanging. Already there have been hunger and plagues, violent movements of nations and signs, which have been predicted by the Lord, they have already been fulfilled (consummated), and there is no other which remains, except the advent of the wicked one in the completion of the Roman kingdom. Why therefore are we occupied with worldly business, and why is our mind held fixed on the lusts of the world or on the anxieties of the ages? Why therefore do we not reject every care of worldly business, and why is our mind held fixed on the lusts of the world or on the anxieties of the ages? 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? 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 is 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!”
With a sense of urgency and strong warning, Ephraim writes that the end times are upon this world and could start at any moment. This text very clearly states the saints and elect of God, all born again believers in The Lord Jesus Christ, will be “taken to the Lord” before the Great Tribulation. Ephraim also identifies the Old Testament “Day of The Lord” and the end times Great tribulation as the same event (in line with the teachings of the Beginning and End Rapture Series). Ephraim quotes Amos 5:18 which says: “Woe unto you that desire the day of the LORD! to what end is it for you? the day of the LORD is darkness, and not light.”
The point he makes is that a Christian should know the Day of The Lord is coming. In the first part of the passage, Ephraim notes that:
“We ought to understand thoroughly therefore, my brothers, what is imminent or overhanging. Already there have been hunger and plagues, violent movements of nations and signs, which have been predicted by the Lord, they have already been fulfilled (consummated)” And not only that but that true Christians will be taken away before it starts.
Here he is describing the first 3 of the first 4 seals of Revelation 6 – wars, famines, and plagues. These are the same end times signs Jesus Christ describes in Matthew 24:
And as he sat upon the mount of Olives, the disciples came unto him privately, saying, Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world? And Jesus answered and said unto them, Take heed that no man deceive you. For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many. And ye shall hear of wars and rumors of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places. All these are the beginning of sorrows. – Matthew 24:3-8.
Jesus describes these events as “the beginning of sorrows.” He also says that when these things come to pass “the end is not yet.” Ephraim’s writing agrees with this interpretation as he says those same events have been “fulfilled (consummated)” in his day, but it was still not the actual Great Tribulation. This also falls in line with the Beginning and End’s Rapture series as explained in our article Who Are The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse? (The first four seals of Revelation 6 were opened at the time Jesus Christ ascended to Heaven. And the rapture itself does not occur until the opening of the 6th Seal.)
Ephraim in very strong language warns the reader not to be consumed with the cares of the world because the world in its current form, is coming to an end. As the Second Advent or Coming of The Lord Jesus Christ grows near, believers are to look to Heaven and set their hearts on pleasing God. It is clear that Ephraim distinguishes the Second Coming of Christ from the rapture, placing the Rapture before the Great Tribulation to come.
The Early Church Believed In The Rapture
The ancient writings are clear – the belief in the Rapture of the Church being removed from this world has existed since the days of the Apostles. Since the very beginning the timbre of church polemic, or teachings has been that the return of Christ is imminent.
Although there are not a great number of writings on the end times from the early centuries of the church, there is no question that there was a belief in the Rapture among the church fathers and they taught it with strong language and scriptural support. In terms of the timing of the Rapture, the early church fathers placed it before the end times Day of The Lord/Great Tribulation. The writings of early saints in the church are not Scripture and should not be treated on the same level as the Bible. These writings also do not “prove” that the pre-Great Tribulation Rapture or the Beginning and End Rapture series are correct. Only rightly divided Scripture from the Bible can determine if a specific belief is accurate or in error. But the writings of church fathers can serve as useful commentaries (just as we use Bible commentaries today in our studies) and certainly prove that the Rapture doctrine existed well before John Darby and has been a part of Christian belief since the earliest days of the Apostles.
However, with all that stated; more important than your position on the rapture, is your individual state of grace. Catholic Christians believe that all men and women will experience the end of human life. The Word of God teaches us that each person will be judged immediately after death.
Catholics believe that heaven awaits those souls found to be in the state of grace or perfection, and hell or eternal damnation awaits those souls who die without repentance for their sins.
At the end of the world (whenever that comes), Jesus will come again in power and glory--the Parousia. At this time the bodies of all the dead will be resurrected. Those still living will be taken up into the air to meet Jesus. The general judgment of all people will then be made. The blessed will possess heaven for all eternity; the damned will suffer hell for all eternity.
Catholic Christians are so aware of the Biblical theme of the last things of this life that they devote four weeks every year to a special time--Advent--a season for the faithful to listen again to the Word of God on the end of this life and the Second Coming of Jesus in glory and judgment.
All professed Christians look to the Bible for their acceptance and understanding of the end of human life and what follows human death. The study of last things is called eschatology from the Greek word eschatos, meaning "the last or extreme."
The stages of escatology include individual human death, particular judgment, the choices of heaven or hell, the end of the world, the living being "taken up," the resurrection of the body, the Second Coming of Christ, general judgment, and the New Creation.
Christians accept that the first of the "last things" of human life is physical death. Natural death is the separation of the immortal soul from the physical body. Divine Revelation tells us the origin of human death--the sin of Adam and Eve. The punishment for the original sin is found in Genesis.
Gen 3:19By the sweat of your face shall you get bread to eat, Until you return to the ground, from which you were taken; For you are dirt, and to dirt, you shall return.