Most people disdain the whole rapture idea; many Christians regard it as an out-of-date belief.
“Who really believes this anyway?” some ask. “Why should I put my hope in something that no one believed until the nineteenth century? Why would anyone look for something that only recently appeared in the long history of the church?”
Such attacks sadden me as well as many others like me who cherish the Lord’s appearing to take us home, known today as the Rapture. Is it really true this belief appeared just 150 years ago?
Scripture, of course, is our sole source for our beliefs and practice regardless of people taught at any point in church history. If any teaching contradicts God’s Word, we must reject it. I believe God’s word teaches that Jesus will return for His church before the tribulation.
However, because this view of the Rapture is so maligned today on the basis of church history, we will take a closer look at how the early followers of Jesus regarded the Lord’s return for His church.
What’s The Origin of The Word?
Since many discredit the Rapture because the word does not appear in the Bible, I will begin by answering this challenge.
While it is true that the word “Rapture” does not appear in English translation of the Bible and the term only came into widespread usage in the nineteenth century, these facts alone do not negate our hope in Jesus’ imminent appearing. Let me explain.
The word “Rapture” comes from a Latin translation of the Bible called the Vulgate, which originated in about AD 400. The Vulgate used the Latin word “rapturo” to translate the Greek for “caught up” (“harpazo” in the Greek) in First Thessalonians 4:17. The term “rapturo” thus designated, in Latin, the catching up of living believers, as Paul describes in this passage.
The words “caught up” in our English versions capture the essence of the Greek “harpazo” in this verse just as the Latin “rapturo” did back at the time of the Vulgate.
In the mid to late nineteenth century, many began to use the word “Rapture” to describe the event Paul wrote about 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 and 1 Corinthians 15:50-54. What matters is whether or not our interpretation of these passages is accurate and consistent with Scripture, not what we call it.
This brings us back to our main question, “Did anyone in the early church regard the event described in these passages as separate from the Second Coming?”
Did Irenaeus Believe in the Rapture?
A prominent theologian and leader of the second century AD church, Irenaeus, wrote Against Heresies in about AD 180 to refute the errors of Gnosticism.
Irenaeus referred to Jesus’ return for His church in this quote from Against Heresies, Book 5, Chapter 29: “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.’”[i]
This quote is significant because:
Irenaeus used the same Greek word for “caught up” (harpazo) that Paul used in 1 Thessalonians 4:17. It’s clear he had this context in mind.
Irenaeus limits the event Paul described in 1 Thessalonians 4 to the church whereas Jesus’s Second Coming impacts the entire world.
The sequence of events in the above quote is that of Jesus catching up the church from the earth followed by the time of great tribulation Jesus described in Matthew 24:21. (While this does not prove Irenaeus believed the Rapture would take place before the tribulation starts, it signifies a belief it would happen well before the Second Coming of Jesus.)
While some doubt this is a reference to the Rapture, I believe the context of Irenaeus’ book supports his belief in it as a unique event. After Irenaeus writes about Jesus catching up His church, he quotes from several places in the book of Revelation, mostly chapter 13, describing the reign of the antichrist. Based on the sequence of Against Heresies, Irenaeus puts the “catching up” of the church before the tyranny of the antichrist.
A Sermon by Ephraem the Syrian
Another early reference to the Rapture comes from someone named Ephraem the Syrian. Born in AD 306, he became a monk, a poet, a writer of hymns, and a preacher. Many scholars believe he attended the Council of Nicea in AD 325.
His sermon entitled On the Last Times, the Antichrist, and the End of the World, is perhaps his best known and controversial sermon. A few historians believe someone else wrote the sermon in about AD 622, but ascribed it to Ephraem to add credibility to it. It’s more likely, however, that Ephraem preached it himself in AD 323.[ii] Either way, the message reflects a pretribulation Rapture viewpoint dating from the early centuries of the church.
Dr. Grant Jeffrey pursued an accurate translation of the sermon and is responsible for making the translation available in his book. The following quote is from section 2 of Ephraem’s sermon:
“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 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.”[iii]
Ephraem believed Jesus would take the church out of the world ahead of a time of intense tribulation that would “overwhelm the world.” Is this not the pretribulation Rapture belief of today? Absolutely!
Belief in this doctrine is not as new as many assert today. Regardless of what date one puts on this sermon, it shows belief in the Rapture at least 1,200 years earlier than most critics today will admit.
If the early church believed the Rapture (what we call it today) was a separate event from Jesus’ Second Coming and occurred before at least the main part of the tribulation, we would expect to see imminency regarding Jesus’ return reflected in the early church. And, that is exactly what we find.
The Didache, which means “teaching” in the Greek, is a brief document from the early years of the church that provides valuable insight into the thoughts of early believers regarding the return of Jesus. Scholars believe The Didache originates from as early as AD 70, although the church did not formally compile it until around AD 300.
Chapter 16 of The Didache says this, “Watch for your life’s sake. Let not your lamps be quenched, nor your loins unloosed; but be ready, for you know not the hour in which our Lord will come.”[iv] These words indicate an imminency regarding the Lord’s appearing, such as would be the case for someone expecting and watching for Jesus’ return to occur at any moment.
This quote in The Didache comes from Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 24 and 25 where the Lord described the tribulation, the antichrist’s defilement of the temple at the midpoint of the tribulation, and His glorious return to earth.
If the early church regarded Jesus’ return for them as the Second Coming, they would have known the rise of the antichrist and his defilement of the temple would have to come first. Why would they be on high alert for an event they knew could not happen for at least three and half years? They would have been watching for that, not Jesus’ return for them.
Why is This Important?
The reason for our look at church history stems from the use of it to deflate the hope of many believers in Jesus’ imminent appearing. Opponents of the Rapture regard it as a relatively recent invention of a fanatic and claim no one in the early church history believed in this bizarre doctrine.
However, our brief look at church history totally dispels this argument. The Church supports our belief in a pretribulation Rapture; it certainly does not negate it.
Although the fulfillment of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and 1 Corinthians 15:50-54 was not called the “Rapture” until 150 years ago, it was a cherished belief of the early church as seen from the Irenaeus’ quote, the sermon of Ephraem, and by clear implication in The Didache, which showed a definite belief that Jesus could come at any time; something not true with the Second Coming.
Early believers looked for the appearing of Jesus at any time; I believe it’s wise to do the same today!
Jonathan C. Brentner
[i] Irenaeus, “Against Heresies,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vols. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1979) Vol. 1, p. 558
[ii] Grant R. Jeffrey, Triumphant Return: The Coming Kingdom of God (Colorado Springs: Waterbrook Press, 2001), p. 174
[iii]Ibid., pp. 175-76\
[iv] The Didache, Chapter 16, as translated on the Early Christian Writings website: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/didache-roberts.html